The Public Health Ministry has put Thailand on a nationwide alert for MERS after one foreigner tested positive for the virus at a Bangkok hospital on Thursday, with various measures being implemented to ensure it does not spread.
Public Health Minister Dr Rajata Rajatanavin said authorities were ensuring the situation was under control, with a total of 141 people in the country on the watch-list. Most of these people have already been located and quarantined.
Health authorities are also working closely with other agencies such as the Foreign Ministry, the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to prevent the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome.
The World Health Organisation's office in Thailand has also provided specialists and advisers to help Thailand contain any MERS outbreak.
"There are two groups of people who had close contact with the Omani MERS patient. The first group, which consists of 66 people, is the riskier group, including three close relatives, 47 medical staff and airline passengers who sat close to the patient on the plane on their way to Thailand," Rajata said.
"The second group has 75 people who came close to the patient but did not have direct contact. They were other airline passengers, taxi drivers and hotel staff. All of them will be monitored for 14 days but they don't need to go to hospital yet."
According to the minister, the chance of a widespread MERS outbreak in Thailand like that in South Korea is very low because Thai health authorities were able to identify the first patient quickly before he could travel further and infect other people.
The acting WHO representative to Thailand, Richard Brown, praised Thailand's swift action to prevent the spread of MERS and the progress in tracking people who had come into contact with the single MERS patient.
Professor Dr Yong Poovorawan, a top virologist at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of medicine, said the MERS virus was less infectious than SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or common flu. The low infection rate of the virus combined with the swift measures to contain it makes the chance of a widespread outbreak in Thailand very low, he said.
Yong suggested that if anyone had come from countries where MERS existed and experienced flu-like symptoms such as cough, runny nose and fever within 14 days, they must wear a facemask and visit a hospital for a check-up.
"There are now 14 centres of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department and laboratories in the medical schools that can test for the MERS virus," he said.
Rajata also said the condition of the first MERS patient, a 75-year-old man from Oman, had improved slightly but he was still in a special unit at Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute in Nonthaburi. Three of his close relatives have been isolated in the same unit as well; two of them have flu symptoms.
"If their [three relatives] MERS test results are positive, there is nothing to worry about as all of them are already in quarantine," he said.
Dr Vitoon Leungdilok, the public health chief of Trang province in southern Thailand, said there was one possible MERS patient who has just returned from South Korea. Authorities got the contact number for this person as part of the monitoring system.
"We will ensure that everyone from at-risk countries is closely monitored," he said.
Dr Surasing Wisarurat, the deputy public health chief of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, said there were many possible MERS patients as airlines fly directly from South Korea to Chiang Mai, but the public should not panic. So far, the province has quarantined four people, including three who came from China, but found no MERS virus.
In the southern province of Songkhla, Dr Suwich Thampalo of the Disease Control Department said doctors were now stationed at Hat Yai and Narathiwat airports to help screen possible MERS patients. In addition, there will be extra measures when Muslim Thais in southern provinces leave for the Middle East for the hajj in August.
Meanwhile, Tourism Council of Thailand president Ittirit Kinglake said MERS could trigger fear among Thais as well as tourists staying in the country. However, he said people should not panic.
He advised tourism operators, particularly hotels, airlines, stores, shops, and every public area, to be aware of this problem. They have been urged to clean up places in order to avoid virus infections.
Siam Commercial Bank's economic team said that Thailand's retailing, entertainment and restaurants tend to be affected the most due to the fears. However, It noted that in 2003 when less-severe SARS spreaded in Thailand, the tourist arrivals in the year dropped by only 7 per cent against the anticipated 50 per cent drop.
Yesterday, share prices of Bumrungrad Hospital shares dropped 6.3 per cent after it confirmed the treatment of the country's first MERS case. Airports of Thailand dropped 4.2 per cent, national carrier Thai Airways International eased 2.3 per cent and Central Plaza Hotel plunged 6.6 per cent.
The health authorities in Pattaya held a press conference yesterday. They said all 42 communites in the resort city have been alerted on the disease and al are instructed to contact health officials if finding any irregularities. In co-operation with immigration officers, they will also put special focus on foreign tourists who are coming from risk countries.
Kittisak Pattamasaevi, vice president of sales and marketing of Montara Hospitality, said the group was considering looking at new markets if its traditional customers drop because of the MERS outbreak. He added that China was an emerging market for the group while customers in some big cities in the Middle East like Dubai still had high potential despite being close to the origin of MERS.
MEASURES IN PLACE
Thai airports have now put in place measures against MERS.
Below are some of steps taken by the country's largest airport, Suvarnabhumi:
Thermoscans installed at four spots;
Bays designated particularly for aircraft flying from seven risky countries - Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Jordan and South Korea;
More frequent cleaning of restrooms, check-in counters, immigration counters, taxi stands, etc;
Hand-cleaning gel provided at more than 200 spots across the airport;
Facial masks available for passengers/airport staff;
Airliners asked to inform passengers of the airport's MERS-control measures;
Health Beware Card provided on flights;
Staff advised to immediately alert health-control checkpoints if patients with fever or suspected MERS symptoms detected.