YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Among worries about killer flu strains in the United States, mad cow in meat, avian flu in poultry and SARS in Asia, you’ll forgive residents of U.S. bases in South Korea if they’re a little more health-conscious this winter than in years past.

But with each succeeding health issue that cropped up in recent weeks, officials say, fears and the actual spread of viruses have been blunted by a mixture of good planning, public awareness initiatives and … kimchi?

Military medical officials credit an early and wide-ranging flu vaccination effort with a quieter-than normal flu season. U.S. Forces Korea inspectors moved swiftly to ensure none of the meat in base stocks came from suppliers possibly tainted by mad cow; they’ve also set up a public hotline for consumer questions.

South Korean officials say keeping SARS cases off the peninsula is attributable to more stringent prevention measures and, in part, to the supposed health benefits of kimchi, the spicy and ubiquitous national dish.

“It’s kind of nice to read all this stuff about how bad the flu season was in the States and now mad cow and everything, then realize we haven’t been hit by that stuff here,” said Shawna Curtis, a Yongsan Garrison spouse walking to lunch on a blustery day in Seoul. “Either we’ve been really lucky or somebody is doing something right.”

Other base residents say they’ve been impressed by medical officials’ quick response to queries. Ken Kaliher, a Department of the Army civilian at Camp Humphreys, had a few questions about beef products and mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which was found in a cow in the United States last month, sparking fears about American beef.

Can mad cow be detected in livestock before slaughter? And will cooking meat to a certain temperature kill the disease? Kaliher asked when he called U.S. Forces Korea’s “mad cow hotline” and in e-mails he sent to military medical officials.

“There is no test before autopsy; there is no treatment prior to death,” were the answers he received, he said.

But Col. Philip Volpe, USFK surgeon general, got back to him almost immediately, providing a few reassurances:

More people have died from choking on beef in the past three years than have died in 17 years from consuming beef tainted by mad cow.More people die from the flu each week than have died in 17 years from mad cow.Cooking poultry at high temperatures for a certain period of time, Kaliher was told, will stop any transmission of the avian flu, which struck part of South Korea’s poultry industry last month.

Officials say they killed almost 1 million chickens and ducks to contain that outbreak and quarantined affected poultry facilities.

And with a third suspected case of SARS detected in China this week, local officials are preparing to battle that virus as well. Body-temperature-scanning machines will be set up at South Korean airports, they said, and health officials are receiving updated training on recognizing and limiting its spread.

Of course, if that doesn’t work, take heart in the fact South Korea’s kimchi industry reported record sales and exports for the year that just ended.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now