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Public concern over military medical system

June 12, 2011 - 19:25 By Song Sangho
Parents call for better disease control and prevention measures

A series of recent cases in which young military trainees have been infected with or even died from a serious disease have sparked public concerns here over the “sloppy” military medical system.

Some argue that the military appears to have attempted to conceal the cases to avoid criticism, particularly from parents who have sent their sons to the Army for mandatory service of around 21 months.

The concerns were triggered by the death of a 19-year-old trainee at an Army boot camp in Nonsan, South Chungcheong Province, in April.

The soldier, identified only by his surname Roh, died of meningitis, a serious infectious illness caused by viruses and bacteria that attacks the brain and spinal cord.

Roh was said to have been given only two acetaminophen tablets after complaining of fever following a nighttime march. News reports of his death added to the criticism that military medical staff and facilities are “poorer than those of prisons.”

At the Nonsan camp, the largest basic Army training site, some 10,000-14,000 trainees are stationed with some 3,000 trainers and enlisted soldiers. Only around 30 medical doctors are there to meet the health needs of all of the troops.

“Speaking from my experience, military doctors at each unit are not so professional and skilled as those who we see here outside the military,” a former Army first lieutenant told The Korea Herald.

“As far as I can tell, the level of medical equipment may not be high enough even to confirm whether a soldier has contracted meningitis or not because they can conduct only a very basic medical checkup.”

Kim Hun-suk, a mother of a 21-year-old private serving in an Army unit in Gangwon Province, said she was brokenhearted to read the news reports about infected soldiers the same age as her son.

“My eyes got teary and my heart was aching when I heard the news reports. I believe what was reported in the local press was only one side of the dark aspects in the military. Including sanitary issues, there are many things to be improved in the military,” she said.

“Facilities and equipment, including medical ones, appear quite old, making me doubt whether they can treat their troops well in case of an actual war. I want to see government officials and politicians go and see them first hand rather than just talking about them.”

At about the time of Roh’s death on April 24, two other soldiers at the same camp were found to have been diagnosed with the same illness, though they recovered from it. Some have since claimed that the military sought to hide the cases from the public.

Following the news of three cases, the Army has come under fire for neglecting an epidemiological investigation.

An official at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told news media that the state-run agency suggested last month that the Army conduct the investigation. But the Army says it was not officially informed of the suggestion.

A hospital also said that it advised in April that all trainees at the camp be given preventive medicine. The Army, however, said that they were given the recommendation only late last month.

The death at the Nonsan camp was not the only case. In December, a private at a field training center in Hongcheon, Gangwon Province, died of meningitis.

According to Rep. Kim Hak-song of the ruling Grand National Party, a member of the parliamentary defense committee, the private, who was being treated for cold symptoms and high fever, was discharged from a medical facility because his training at the camp was almost over.

On the very day he was released from the facility, he lost consciousness and was transported to a larger military hospital, but died, Kim said.

“Such meningitis infection cases continue in the military, including the death of Roh at the Nonsan camp. Suspicions are being amplified over how many infection cases have occurred in the military while it remains mum about such cases,” Kim said.

“We need to try harder to complement the military infection control system and address problems facing the military medical treatment apparatus.”

The Defense Ministry said that it is considering vaccinating all recruits at military training centers against meningitis. It has also decided to conduct an investigation into how the infectious disease broke out and spread at the Nonsan camp in tandem with the state disease control agency.

In related news, the ministry is considering enabling male students at nursing colleges to work as commissioned officers in the military as part of efforts to increase the military medical staff, officials said.

There are currently some 2,200 female nursing students across the country. Most of them have joined the military as enlisted medics.

The ministry is also considering providing benefits for medical doctors working at the Nonsan center and other military boot camps in a bid to boost morale.

By Song Sang-ho (