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Korea to form school disease response team

South Korea’s Education Ministry is set to create a permanent response team to deal with outbreaks of infectious diseases within schools, officials said Wednesday, a decision sparked by the recent Middle East respiratory syndrome crisis.

“As the ministry’s gesture to show that it will protect schools from not just MERS but all contagious diseases, we will create a permanent task force that will be operated from July,” said Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea.

A team of five ministry officials will be in charge of creating the manual on how to deal with contagion, as well as boosting cooperation with local medical facilities. The exact date of the operation launch will be decided later, the ministry officials said.

MERS ― which was first spotted in 2012 in Saudi Arabia ― has infected 186 people and claimed 35 lives to date in Korea, making it the second most affected country in the world.

The nationwide scare pushed over 2,500 schools, kindergartens and colleges across the country to cancel classes. Education authorities became subject to much criticism for the handling of the situation, particularly in providing information to the students, parents and schools about the level of threat the virus posed to classrooms.

“As a manual for dealing with such situation did not exist, it took time for us to make the manual. The task force will allow us to act more promptly,” said a high-ranking official from the ministry.

In case of an outbreak, the task force will continuously collect information regarding such diseases from both local medical centers and education offices to keep track of the situation. The team will also be in charge of creating teaching materials on dealing with infectious diseases while pushing for medical check-ups to find infectious disease at early stages.

The five-member team will be aided by 10 local experts in infectious diseases including Lee Jong-koo, head of the Seoul National University Center for Global Medicine, and Kim Woo-joo, the head of the Korean Society of Infectious Diseases.

Hwang added that the ministry also plans to add more school nurses, as the MERS outbreak revealed that many schools did not even have nurses.

“The key idea (of the ministry’s plan) is to provide constant monitoring of student well-being, so that we can at least rein in infectious diseases, instead of cooking up measures every time there is an outbreak,” Hwang said.

By Yoon Min-sik (minsikyoon@heraldcorp.com)

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