BANGKOK - Thai authorities took nearly four days to confirm the country's first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the health ministry said on Friday, a time lag likely to raise fears of a further spread of the deadly virus in Asia.
Thailand confirmed its first case of MERS on Thursday, a 75-year-old businessman from Oman, just as an outbreak in South Korea that began last month and has infected 166 people, and killed 24 of them, appeared to be levelling off.
Thai Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin said 59 people who had come into contact with the infected man were being monitored.
The man arrived in Bangkok on Monday for medical treatment for a heart ailment at a private hospital, Rajata said.
He declined to identify the hospital and said the patient was transferred to infectious diseases institute in Bangkok on Thursday and put in quarantine. "It took about four days to diagnose this case and two lab tests," Rajata told Reuters.
The 59 people being monitored included fellow passengers on the man's flight to Bangkok, Rajata said. Three of the 59 have been hospitalised while the rest have been told to stay at home for 14 days.
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.
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.
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.
WORST OVER IN KOREA?
South Korea's outbreak, the largest outside Saudi Arabia, has been traced to a 68-year-old man who returned from a business trip to the Middle East in early May.
It has 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, 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, Kwon Deok-cheol, told a briefing in Seoul.
As part of those efforts, South Korean authorities were contacting nearly 42,000 people who had visited a hospital in the capital, Seoul, that has been at the centre of the outbreak, with half of the country's infections happening there.
Authorities said they aimed to contact people who had been at the hospital, the Samsung Medical Center, between May 27-29 and June 2-10, and they raised the number of those who may have been in contact with MERS cases there to about 7,000 people.
Thailand's acting permanent secretary at the health ministry, Surachat Satitniramai, said Thailand was using similar drills as those employed for an outbreak of the H1N1 birdflu virus in 2009 to prepare for any spread of MERS.
Information posters were being put up at hospitals and air passengers from countries at risk were being screened.
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.