No suspected cases of Sars-like virus here

SINGAPORE - While a Sars-like coronavirus has claimed another life, this time in Britain, no suspected cases have been reported here.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) gave this assurance on Wednesday and added that it is monitoring the situation closely.

But it is not conducting special screenings at points of entry or imposing travel restrictions as the World Health Organisation (WHO) is not recommending such moves yet.

The person who died in Britain on Sunday adds to the five who died in Saudi Arabia and Jordan after the new strain of coronavirus surfaced in April last year.

Worldwide, 12 cases have been reported so far. They have drawn attention as the 10th anniversary of Sars approaches. In a global scare that erupted in March 2003, the infection killed more than 800 people globally, including 33 here.

An MOH spokesman said the risk of transmission of the new virus to Singapore is low. This is because cases have so far occurred mostly in a "sporadic manner" and severe secondary infections among their close contacts appear to be uncommon.

More cases, however, are likely to emerge as countries have been put on the alert.

"With the ongoing investigations and enhanced surveillance in the Arabian peninsula and worldwide, MOH expects that more sporadic cases and clusters may be reported," she said.

The new strain of coronavirus belongs to the same family of viruses that can cause illnesses from the common cold to Sars.

However, this strain does not appear to transmit easily between people, unlike Sars. It is said to spread via droplets when a sick person coughs or sneezes.

In its latest update on Feb 16, the WHO advised health-care staff to test for the virus if patients have unexplained pneumonia or severe respiratory illnesses and do not respond to treatment.

Here, hospitals and clinics have been told to notify MOH immediately if any suspected cases crop up. At Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), a response plan has been put in place since the global alert was issued last September.

Staff are instructed to keep an eye out for patients with links to the affected areas and who display symptoms of severe respiratory infections, among other things, said Associate Professor Leo Yee Sin, who heads the Communicable Disease Centre there.

"Suspected cases will be isolated and clinically managed accordingly," she added. For instance, samples from the person will be sent to laboratories for testing.

Dr Asok Kurup, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, said preventive measures are in place across most health-care institutions following previous experiences with Sars and H1N1 infections.

"Clinics have been primed to be on the lookout. So even if there's a case, it will likely be nailed down quickly," he added.

Prof Leo said one such system implemented at TTSH since Sars is to monitor medical leave and clinical symptoms of health-care workers when they call in sick.

They come into contact with sick people more often than the general public and can be at risk of being infected.

But Dr Kurup remains "apprehensive" about the new virus, given that fatalities have been high among the few cases reported.

"Those who travelled to the Arabian peninsula and have respiratory problems upon returning should see a doctor," he advised, adding that it might be wise to wear a face mask to avoid infecting others.

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