Confirmation by the nation's health authorities that A(H1N1) influenza killed the 7-year-old son of well-known TV actor Lee Kwang-gi
on Sunday has sent a shock wave across the nation.
Parents are starting to fear their otherwise healthy kids could also fall victim to the latest strain of the flu.
Earlier on Sunday, Lee's management agency said the child, named Seok-gyu, died of acute pneumonia and blood poisoning.
In the evening, the 40-year-old actor said he received a text message around 4 p.m., from the hospital that had treated the child a day before, saying that the youngster was suffering from the new flu strain and belatedly advising him to obtain a five-day dose of Tamiflu.
Lee said he received a text message around 4 p.m., from the hospital that had treated the child a day before, saying that the youngster was suffering from the new flu strain and belatedly advising him to obtain a five-day dose of Tamiflu.
The child first showed symptoms last Friday, according to Lee.
Dozens of fellow entertainers have been visiting the hospital in Ilsan, which has a memorial altar for Seok-gyu, and hundreds of Internet users have left messages of condolences on Lee's Internet home page.
The Health Ministry has yet to confirm that Lee's son carried a specific disease. If the boy is identified as having been healthy before catching the flu, he will be the second child to die of the disease who was not in a high-risk category. So far, nine kids have died of the flu. The first was identified as suffering from cerebral palsy, although health authorities have not put the disease under high-risk classification for the H1N1 influenza.
Analysis of the deaths of the children shows that their conditions rapidly worsened and that they died three to four days after visiting hospitals. Some died while taking Tamiflu.
Parents of younger children say they are shocked to see such a sudden death of a celebrity's child.
Chung Eugene, the mother of a 3-year-old girl, said she and her daughter hardly come out of their house anymore for fear of catching the illness.
"I am panicking about the fact that nobody knows who will contract the flu and die", she said.
That the H1N1 flu vaccination of babies and children aged between six months and 6 years will begin next month is also making parents nervous. The delay came after clinical tests for vaccination of kids of those ages conducted earlier turned out to be unreliable.
A second round of tests has been conducted by the Health Ministry but the results are not slated to come out until the end of December. Babies who are younger than six months are not eligible for the shots.
"We are now looking into various options that could advance the date for vaccinating babies and kids", said a Health Ministry official.
Doctors and medical researchers have yet to identify what causes such fast progression of the disease.
Kim Woo-joo, professor of medicine at Korea University's medical center in Guro, western Seoul, said whereas seasonal flu virus is normally discovered in the upper part of the airway, patients who have died of H1N1 flu or those in serious condition carried the virus in lower parts.
"When the virus fails to be eliminated from the body [due to its location], it could rapidly develop into diseases such as pneumonia, threatening the patient's life", he said. "The number of healthy kids dying of H1N1 influenza is on the rise in the United States, too".
He listed breathing difficulty, blood in phlegm, difficulty in waking and a drop in blood pressure as examples of serious symptoms of this new flu strain. Officials have stressed that the overall mortality rate of the new flu strain is no more than that of seasonal flu.
By Seo Ji-eun