Another Day, Another Deadly Disease Aims for L.A.

Don't let us down, Koreatown.
Don't let us down, Koreatown.
Brian Swanson/L.A. Weekly Flickr pool

Another scary, deadly disease is spreading across the world, and this time it's much closer to L.A. than Ebola was when it started in West Africa.

MERS (for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) has killed 442 people and infected a total of 1,179, according to the World Health Organization. That's a scary kill rate if you ask us.

On May 20, the largest outbreak outside of the Arabian Peninsula was sparked in South Korea. The WHO says 64 cases of MERS have been confirmed in the Asian nation.

As you well know, Los Angeles is America's most Korean city. Cal State Los Angeles says the county has about 186,350 people of Korean descent, far more than any other county in the nation.

If MERS comes to the United States, there's a decent chance it will come through Los Angeles. The L.A. County Department of Public Health knows this, and it's on the case.

Don't be alarmed if county health officials are laid-back about the whole thing. The chances of MERS infecting Koreatown and the rest of L.A. are smaller than Tom Cruise.

For one thing, all the cases in South Korea were transmitted at and confined to medical facilities. The chances of even everyday South Koreans getting MERS seem small.

Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of the county's Acute Communicable Disease Control Program, says, "Your average [South] Korean walking around is not at risk."

Feel better? Probably not. Here's more:

"It's not easily transmitted person-to-person," Mascola says. "The reason it's easily transmitted in health facilities is that patients are usually pretty sick by the time they come in — they have a higher viral load and they're not always appropriately isolated."

The biggest risk, she said, is to hospital patients' roommates and to health care workers. Also, remember when Ebola was going to invade America — and it was all President Obama's fault? Yeah.

Nonetheless, the County Department of Public Health last week sent an alert to about 100 area hospitals stating that the South Korean "outbreak highlights how international travel can spread illness and create public health threats."

The department is telling hospitals to ask patients with MERS symptoms —  fever, cough, shortness of breath — to ask for travel history.

Mascola says having been to South Korea recently isn't enough of a clue to suspect MERS: A patient would have to have been in a health care facility there as well.

That's when the county should be notified, she said. The alert says any suspected MERS patients need to be isolated immediately.

There are six flights each day from South Korea to LAX, and the department also has worked with airlines to try to ensure that any suspected cases are reported to health authorities, Mascola said.

Travelers to South Korea are advised by the Centers for Disease Control to "practice usual precautions" such as hand washing, hand-sanitizer use and avoiding the sick

It appears that Korean-Americans in L.A. are pretty nonchalant about the whole thing so far.

Chris Lee of the Korean-American Coalition says, "I don't think any of us are really concerned."

However, some Korean-Americans in L.A. have been buying hand sanitizer and sending it home based on reports that stores in South Korea are selling out as people try to defend against the outbreak, she said.

And some community groups that traditionally organize summer trips for Korean-American students whose parents want them to learn Korean and soak up more Korean culture are temporarily canceling those programs as a result of the outbreak.

A representative of the Korean-American Federation of Los Angeles says it canceled a teen trip to Korea for just that reason.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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