Temperature screening for passengers from the Middle East

Temperature screening stations similar to those during the Sars epidemic will be set up at all air checkpoints from Sunday.
PHOTO: Temperature screening for passengers from the Middle East

It may take you a longer time to disembark from a plane if you're just back from the Middle East, or have stopped over in one of the countries there.

From Sunday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) will set up temperature screening stations at the air checkpoints to facilitate the early detection of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (Mers-CoV) infections.

But Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist, will tell you that the inconvenience is nothing compared to the kind of pain - physical and mental - you have to bear if you are hit by the virus.

"It hurts me when we have to quarantine people out of necessity. It hurts me when I have people dying of various illnesses and they can't be with their loved ones because they are quarantined.

"If I'm sick or unwell, I don't want to see a nurse and a doctor in a face mask, but my family and loved ones next to me," he said. Dr Leong is speaking from personal experience.

In 2003, during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic, he took care of the first Sars patient here. Six days later, he caught the virus as well.

The Mers virus is a stark reminder. It is caused by a virus which belongs to the same coronavirus family as the Sars virus.

There is currently no vaccination against the virus.

So travellers returning or coming from the Middle East will face temperature screening stations. They are a pre-emptive measure by MOH, said the ministry's director of medical services, Associate Professor Benjamin Ong.

The same was done during the Sars and H1N1 epidemics, he said.

The risk of a community outbreak remains low as there are no cases of sustained human-to-human transmission of the virus being reported so far, Prof Ong added.

"However, with today's globalised travel patterns, the possibility of an imported case cannot be ruled out," he said.

INCUBATION PERIOD

He added that this pre-emptive measure may not pick up all imported Mers cases due to the virus' "relatively long" incubation period of about 14 days.

While the specifics of the temperature screening stations are not firmed up, there will be up to nine medical teams stationed at all air checkpoints, depending on the flight schedule each day, said MOH's operations group director Koh Peng Keng.

Each medical team will have two to four nurses, with two to three doctors roaming around the airport.

Suspected and confirmed cases will be quarantined. MOH will conduct contact tracing when appropriate, and all close contacts will be placed under quarantine, said Prof Ong.

Mr Koh said local residents will be quarantined in their homes, while tourists will be confined to a quarantine facility.

Other than temperature screenings, health advisories will also be issued to outbound and inbound travellers from affected areas in the Middle East.

MOH advises frequent travellers to the Middle East and pilgrims to be vaccinated against influenza and meningitis, as this will prevent common infections which have similar symptoms to Mers. Those above 65 years old have also been advised to vaccinate against pneumococcal infections.

Those who get a fever and cough while travelling, or within two weeks of returning from a Mers-hit country, should also seek medical attention.

WHAT IS MERS?

The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) is caused by a coronavirus which first surfaced in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Dr Jeffery Cutter, the director of the Health Ministry's communicable diseases division, said that while the transmission mechanism remains unclear, camels are a likely source of infection.

While the virus can also be transmitted through close contact between humans, sustained infections of this type has not been observed, he added.

According to data from the World Health Organisation, the virus has claimed 71 lives this year as of May 14.

A 54-year-old Malaysian succumbed to the virus last month.

Singapore has yet to be hit by the virus.

Dr Cutter said there were 48 suspected cases as of May 14 this year.

Out of these cases, 40 had been on a pilgrimage to the Middle East.

This article was published on May 16 in The New Paper. Get The New Paper for more stories.