PM: S'pore can avoid panic by being ready for MERS

It is "a matter of time" before the first case of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) is reported here, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

And when it does, Singaporeans must be physically and mentally prepared to deal with the virus and prevent its spread.

Mr Lee and his wife Ho Ching were visiting Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) - the designated isolation centre for suspected and confirmed Mers cases - to observe emergency preparedness measures there.

"I want to be quite sure that our medical facilities, our medical staff, our hospitals...are ready; they know how to deal with it, they don't fumble," Mr Lee said.

"And we can contain it, put a stop to the disease in Singapore as quickly as we can."

He pointed to the close ties between Singapore and South Korea as a major risk factor.

"Every month, we have about 40,000 visitors (from South Korea), and during a holiday month like June, a lot of families go to Korea on holiday," Mr Lee said.

If the virus arrives on local shores, he added, "we don't want to get into a panic".

"And we don't have to, if we are well-prepared."

There have been no reported cases in Singapore so far.

Since May last year, Singapore has been carrying out temperature screening at airports for travellers arriving from the Middle East, where the virus originated.

On Tuesday, this was extended to those coming from South Korea, where Mers has killed 10 people and infected 122 as of last evening.

However, more schools there have reopened after a team of experts from the World Health Organisation and South Korea said that schools are unlikely to spread the disease further.

In Hong Kong, the health authorities called for calm as it was confirmed that all 33 suspected cases of Mers reported in the city as of noon on Wednesday had tested negative for the virus, the South China Morning Post reported.

This included the case involving a 22-year-old woman who had gone to a private clinic at the Tsing Yi MTR train station.

The authorities said no confirmed case of Mers has been found in Hong Kong as of press time, Xinhua news agency reported.

Infectious disease experts in Singapore said that Mers is unlikely to hit as hard as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2003, unless the virus undergoes a major and sudden change.

Drastic mutations in Mers have not happened, as it has remained relatively unchanged since surfacing in the Middle East three years ago.

So even though Mers has proven deadlier than its coronavirus cousin Sars, it cannot spread as rampantly, and that has kept it in check.

Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious disease programme at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, noted that a Sars patient wandering around freely is certain to pass the virus to at least one person. The odds of this happening with Mers at home, in the bus or shopping mall, for instance, is lower - at 60 per cent.

Even so, public and private healthcare institutions - including general practitioner clinics - have been stepping up precautionary measures.

Parkway Shenton - which runs the Shenton Medical group of clinics - and Raffles Medical Group said that clinic staff have been screening patients and checking their travel history so that suspected cases can be quickly isolated.

Public hospitals also have similar isolation protocols in place for those who show up at emergency departments with symptoms typical of Mers infections, such as fever and cough.

But the definitive tests for whether a patient has Mers will be done at TTSH, where all suspected adult cases will be taken via ambulance. The ambulance will be disinfected after the trip.

If confirmed, patients will be isolated in the hospital's Communicable Disease Centres, which are separate from the main building.

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