S'pore taking more Mers precautions

PHOTO: S'pore taking more Mers precautions

Singapore is stepping up precautionary measures against the deadly Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) although no cases have been detected here.

All passengers leaving Changi Airport for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other cities in the affected region will be handed health circulars to alert them to the disease, The Straits Times has learnt.

The advice includes warnings to avoid people suffering from acute respiratory infections, as well as camels and other live wild or farm animals.

Circulars are already being given out to arriving passengers, advising them to look for symptoms and to seek medical attention if necessary.

Carriers flying to and from Singapore and the Middle East, including Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, were briefed on the measures at Changi Airport last Wednesday.

The session was attended by government officials, including those from the Ministry of Health, as well as Changi Airport Group staff.

In a media release last night, the ministry confirmed the stepped-up measures and added that in the last four months, 47 suspected Mers cases were investigated and tested negative.

Mers, which is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible virus from the same family as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus, was first detected in Saudi Arabia in 2012, where it has killed more than 100 people.

The latest case in the United States has sparked concerns over the spread of the virus, which is often fatal, given that there are no vaccines or anti-viral treatments.

There are almost 60 flights a week between Singapore and five points in the Middle East - Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jeddah.

A Singapore Airlines spokesman said the carrier is working closely with the authorities on procedures for handling inbound and outbound passengers.

The authorities in Abu Dhabi are monitoring the Mers situation closely and working with the World Health Organisation and other authorities, a spokesman for the country's home carrier, Etihad Airways, said.

She added: "Etihad is continuing to follow its standard operating procedures to ensure passengers are fit to fly, which include evaluating any passengers for signs of illness prior to boarding."

Some airports, such as Kuala Lumpur International Airport, are screening arriving passengers from the affected region.

The Straits Times understands that the subject of screening passengers came up during last Wednesday's meeting at Changi Airport, but airlines were told there are no plans to do so.

When the Sars virus hit Singapore in 2003, the authorities started screening arriving passengers - at first manually by nurses stationed at the airport and later using thermal scanners to detect fever - after a few people here died from the virus.

Muslims here going ahead with pilgrimage plans

Muslims in Singapore intent on going on the umrah - or minor pilgrimage - to Mecca remain undeterred despite the worsening Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) situation there.

The Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore, which represents more than 30 agents, said it has not seen any cancellations so far.

Instead, these agents are keeping pilgrims updated on the Mers situation and offering them safety advice.

"They come to us to ask whether it is safe," said the association's honorary secretary Mohamed Roslan Jaafar. "We keep them posted, tell them to be careful and take extra precautions like taking extra jabs if they need them."

He expects to see about 2,000 to 3,000 umrah bookings for next month, typically the peak period for pilgrims because of the school holidays.

And parents should not worry too much, as long as their children observe proper hygiene procedures. "Children are not more susceptible than adults," said Professor Paul Tambyah, president of the Society of Infectious Diseases. "If they are going, just make sure they sanitise their hands properly, especially if they visit hospitals."

The Health Ministry has sent out an advisory for pilgrims, which includes wearing masks in crowded places and avoiding contact with camels.

Those with pre-existing chronic conditions like diabetes should see a doctor before travel. More than 100 people in Saudi Arabia alone have died of Mers so far.

However, Mr Roslan recalled that during the H1N1 and Sars outbreaks in 2009 and 2003 respectively, many Muslims carried on with pilgrimage plans. "It is not a holiday trip," he added. "The majority still want to go."

This article was published on May 6 in The Straits Times. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.