World Scout Jamboree: Hundreds of teenagers get sick from heat wave in South Korea

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Participants at the World Scout Jamboree in South Korea cool off at a water supply zone on August 4, 2023.

Seoul, South Korea

Hundreds of teenage Boy and Girl Scouts have fallen ill at a global event in South Korea. a suffocating heat wave sweeps over the land, angering some parents who have called for the 12-day event to be cancelled.

Nearly 40,000 participants – mostly middle and high school students – have traveled from 155 different countries to take part in the event, a weeklong festival of cultural performances and outdoor activities, according to Kim Hyun-sook, the chairman of the jamboree’s organizing committee and the minister of gender equality and family.

Their visit came as South Korea registered constant high temperatures up to 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) that trigger nation-wide heat wave warnings and pose a major headache for jamboree organizers.

On Thursday alone, 1,486 people visited the on-site hospital at the World Scout Jamboree held in Saemangeum, a few hours south of Seoul, according to Kim.

Of the people who visited the hospital, 250 reported skin rashes, 138 had heat-related illness and 386 had bug bites, Kim added — but none were in critical condition, a Jeonbuk Fire Department official said.

The development prompted the UK Scouts Association to announce that around 4,000 British scouts and volunteers who attended the jamboree would leave the event and move to hotels in the capital, Seoul.

“We will begin moving our people to hotel accommodation over the next two days. As we are the largest contingent, our hope is that this will help relieve pressure on the ground overall,” the organization said in a statement on Friday.

British Scouts also acknowledged that while the decision may serve as “disappointment to some”, it will endeavor to “continue the Jamboree experience” in the capital of Seoul, working with the Korean authorities “on a program of activities.”

As more children fell ill, concerned parents and observers from around the world flooded the event’s social media pages with frantic questions, angry rebukes to organizers and calls for the event to end – with messages written in different languages.

One commenter wrote that their son had spent their night at the jamboree sleeping on the ground because there were no tents, cots or other equipment available. “My wallet paid a heavy price for this chaos,” they wrote.

A write-up in Spanish said their daughter attended the event and had reported that there was “no food, no way to protect them from the sun.”

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Participants play with a ball at the campsite of the 25th World Scout Jamboree in South Korea on August 4, 2023.

CNN has reached out to jamboree organizers for a response to the parents’ comments.

Pictures from the scene show participants gathering at a water supply zone to cool off and resting in shaded areas.

National authorities are also getting involved, with President Yoon Suk Yeol ordering an “unlimited supply” of large air-conditioned buses and refrigerated trucks to the campsite on Monday. He also ordered the organizers to improve the quality of the food provided and to “immediately resolve” problems that arose from the venue, according to the president’s office.

In a press release Friday, event organizers said they were working with the Red Cross to accommodate those with heat-related symptoms. The military is also helping to set up shade shelters and improve the floors of green wine tunnels where participants have been hiding from the heat.

The jamboree is also increasing its medical staff, pest control staff, portable toilets and food supplies. The number of cleaning staff – previously just 70 for the entire 40,000-person venue – has been increased to more than 500, organizers said.

Kim, the minister and chairman of the jamboree organization, said about 130 refrigerated buses will be deployed to the site on Friday and another 10 refrigerated trucks will be dispatched soon. Each scout receives five bottles of cold water each day, as well as cooling masks, hats, sunscreen, ice packs and salt pills, she added.

The fire service has been operating the hospital at the site, with around 200 fire services deployed each day to the scene. They plan to increase this number for the upcoming cultural event day on Sunday, when the attendance is expected to increase.

Organizers have also adjusted scheduled events, suspending activities that require “significant physical activity” and replacing them with indoor programs, they said. However, organizers suggested they would not heed public calls to cancel the jamboree and would “ensure the safe and stable operation of this event until its conclusion.”

The heat wave intensified in late July, with 19 reported deaths from heat-related illness since May 20 and 1,520 reported heat-related illness, according to the country’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The deaths far exceed those in the same period last year, when six people died of heat-related illnesses, the agency said.

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