BANGKOK- One of Thailand's leading hospitals, known for treating medical tourists, said on Friday it had received the country's first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), as authorities said it had taken nearly four days to confirm the illness.
Thailand said on Thursday a 75-year-old businessman from Oman, who had travelled to Bangkok for medical treatment for a heart condition, had tested positive for MERS.
The announcement came just as an outbreak in South Korea that began last month and has infected 166 people, killing 24 of them, appeared to be levelling off.
The high-end Bumrungrad Hospital, run by Thailand's second-largest hospital operator, identified the first MERS case. The hospital in central Bangkok treats over a million patients a year, about half of them foreigners. "The patient came to us tired, coughing ... there was no fever," a doctor from the private hospital told a televised news conference. "So we X-rayed his chest ... we found that he could have two things, a heart condition or the MERS virus." Tourism accounts for 10 percent of the Thai economy and medical tourists make up more than 10 percent of visitors, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. About a third of those medical tourists come from the Middle East.
The hospital said 58 staff had been quarantined, but all other operations were continuing as normal.
The infected man was moved to Bangkok's Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute on Thursday. Staff there were seen wearing and giving out masks to visitors, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene. Health warnings were posted in front of the building's entrance.
Two South Korean hospitals were locked down and another completely shut due to MERS, while the prestigious Samsung Medical Center in Seoul, where most infections occurred, stopped taking new patients during the outbreak.
The Thai case will compound fears in Asia of a repeat of a 2002-2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which began in China and killed about 800 people globally.
MERS was first identified in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and the majority of cases have been in the Middle East.
Isolated cases have cropped up in Asia before South Korea's outbreak began last month, and Thailand is the fourth Asian country to register a case.
China has had one case recently, that of a South Korean man who travelled to China via Hong Kong despite authorities suggesting he stay in voluntary quarantine at home. The Philippines has also identified a case this year.
CONCERN FOR VICTIM'S SONS
The infected man arrived in the Thai capital on Monday on an Oman Air flight for medical treatment for a heart ailment at a private hospital. "It took about four days to diagnose this case and two lab tests," Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin told Reuters, adding all 106 people on board the man's flight had been located.
Among those being monitored were the man's two sons, who were considered at high risk because of their proximity to their father. The two had been tested and results were due later on Friday, Rajata said.
Most of those under observation had been told to stay at home for 14 days.
South Korea's outbreak, the largest outside Saudi Arabia, had been traced to a 68-year-old man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East in early May.
It spread through hospitals with all of its infections known to have occurred in healthcare facilities.
The outbreak in South Korea appeared to have peaked, with just one new case reported on Friday and the number of people in quarantine down 12 percent to 5,930, though authorities were taking no chances. "Given the current developments, we have judged that it has levelled off, but we need to watch further spread, further cases from so-called intensive control hospitals," the South Korean health ministry's chief policy official, Kwan Deok-cheol, told a briefing in Seoul.
In Thailand, authorities were screening passengers from countries seen at risk of MERS and stepping up public information about the virus, another health official said.
The Middle East is an important source of tourists for Thailand with arrivals from the region up by nearly 50 percent in January, according to the tourism office.
Bangkok is also one of the region's main aviation hubs.
The vast majority of MERS infections have been in Saudi Arabia, where more than 1,000 people have been infected since 2012, and about 454 have died. There is no cure.
Shares in Thai aviation companies and hotels fell on Friday with hotel operator Central Plaza Hotel plunging 6.6 percent. Airports operator Airports of Thailand dropped 4.2 percent to a more than three-week low. Bumrungrad Hospital shares were down over 6 percent.