By Lee Joon-seung
SEOUL, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea will take all necessary measures to contain the spread of the Influenza A virus that has claimed 42 lives in the country so far, government health authorities said Tuesday, as they raised the national epidemic alert status to its highest level.
The Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs said that raising the flu alert status to "red" and calling for the establishment of a central disaster relief headquarters reflects the need to fight the epidemic on a national level, and to prepare for potential developments like large number of very sick people seeking treatment simultaneously.
The onset of cold weather has caused a spike in H1N1 flu cases, with some warning 60,000-100,000 new cases of the flu are being confirmed on a weekly basis.
The country had maintained its "orange" alert status since July 21, the third highest in its four-tiered warning system, but decided to raise it as an average of 8,857 people caught the flu per day last week, up from the 4,420 tallied for the week before.
It said that the move to set up a disaster headquarters under the Ministry of Public Administration and Security will use a two-track approach in coping with the virus.
"On the one hand, Seoul will continue to help sick people and conduct nationwide vaccination programs that target young people, senior citizens and people suffering from chronic health conditions, while at the same time getting ready for all eventualities down the road," said Choi Hee-joo, head of the ministry's health policy bureau.
The expert said that the disaster headquarters will work in concert with hundreds of regional administration and health organizations to get immediate feedback on the number of sick people and medical facilities that can be utilized.
"This will permit speedy treatment of patients in emergency situations and better allocation of resources and medication," he said.
The ministry has already ordered frontline doctors to prescribe anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu to people with flu symptoms and has sped up clinical tests on Peramivir injections that may be used to help serious flu patients.
Echoing this stance, officials at the public administration ministry said South Korea is fully capable of dealing with all developments.
"The country has a good medical infrastructure and qualified medical personnel, so there are no plans to shut down schools for several weeks or encourage work closures," a source said. He claimed that such actions could lead to considerable social and economic costs with limited benefits.
The official added that while number of flu patients may shoot up, vaccine shots, which will be given to roughly 35 percent of the general population by early next year, and liberal use of anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu should help contain the virus from spreading this winter.
However, he said that since the government has raised the alert status and set up the oversight disaster control center, it can now theoretically call up medical personnel to help the government and issue various orders related to gatherings and events and other things that affect people's everyday lives.
Reflecting moves by authorities to cooperate on the H1N1 flu outbreak, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said there is a need for full coordination between ministries and local governments to deal with the disease.
"This is not an issue to be dealt by the health ministry alone. All ministries should act responsibly and cooperate to come up with an effective system," Lee was quoted as saying earlier by his spokesperson Kim Eun-hye during a Cabinet meeting.
Despite such efforts, some doctors criticized the latest government actions as lacking substance and for doing too little to alleviate public concerns and problems encountered at frontline hospitals and clinics.
"There is a need to give doctors a clearer set of guidelines on how to proceed with treatment and separation of workloads between neighborhood clinics and larger hospitals," Lee Dong-hoon, a doctor of internal medicine in Seoul said. He said the government did not mention such details in the press conference.
Others said the latest upgrade in the alert should have included details like how long flu patients should stay home and what specific measures need to be taken by ordinary people and medical personnel if a person becomes ill.
"The government has yet to hand down any real authoritative manuals on how to handle patients, which is exacerbating confusion and fueling concerns," a doctor who declined to be identified said.
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