Thailand steps up airport screening over MERS

Travellers walk past a thermoscan checking their body temperature on arrival at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. Photo: AFP

Screening for the disease MERS has been stepped up at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to include all passengers from seven countries where infections have been confirmed - about 30,000 people per day - having to pass inspection checkpoints before entering Thailand and facing close monitoring after arrival.

While the condition of the sole confirmed MERS - Middle East Respiratory Syndrome - patient has improved, 176 people have been identified as having been in close contact with him.

No new case of MERS has been reported in Thailand yet but three new infections were reported in South Korea.

Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin plus Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul visited immigration stations at Suvarnabhumi Airport with a team of officials yesterday to check the disease inspection procedures as well as reassure tourists that proper precautions were in place.

They distributed the facemasks and hand gel to passengers arriving on 37 airlines from Middle Eastern countries and South Korea, and inspected the airport taxi rank.

Rajata said a new thermoscan camera had been installed at terminal F, which meant the airport now has four thermoscan checkpoints. This was to increase the efficiency and extensiveness of disease inspection on passengers who travel from seven countries with infections: Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Jordan and South Korea.

Up to 30,000 passengers from these countries come to Thailand via Suvarnabhumi Airport every day.

The minister said passengers found to have a fever as they go through the screening area would be quarantined and transferred to hospital. Other passengers would be asked for contact details for further monitoring.

Taxi drivers, hotel staff and family members of passengers identified as having a fever would also be watched, as they would have close contact with individuals who may have MERS.

"From the inspection, the disease screening process at Suvarnabhumi Airport is of the same standard as the World Health Organisation, as we inform passengers before they land on how to co-operate with the screening process and what they should do if they have a fever," he said.

If passengers feel sick after leaving the airport, they have to contact a Public Health Ministry officer to set up a transfer - not go to a hospital by themselves - as they must minimise the chance of infecting other people.

Strict measures were also imposed on the famous South Korean boy band EXO, who will hold a concert here. This sparked some criticism from EXO fans who felt their beloved pop stars did not need to pass through disease screening.

Sopon Mekthon, director of the Department of Disease Control, said measures taken to prevent the spread of MERS were standard |procedure in Thailand. The process for the band was done in the VIP room and took only a short period of time.

"Everyone from the infected countries has to pass the disease screening process with no exception. It is a very important process in order to prevent the MERS infection from spreading," Sopon said.

There were reports of three new MERS infection cases in South Korea yesterday, bringing the total number of cases to 166. Some 24 of these people have died of the disease in Korea.

Health Minister Rajata said that the Omani man diagnosed as the first MERS case in Thailand was being treated at Bamrasnaradura Infectious Diseases Institute and his condition had improved. The patient reportedly had no fever yesterday and three of relatives, who had been quarantined, were found not to have the infection.

There were 176 people who had contact with the patient; 94 had been found and would be monitored for 14 days, he said.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has assigned embassies and consulates overseas to give details on the Kingdom's prevention and monitoring measures against MERS.

In a statement, the ministry said these include "surveillance" at airports and hospitals via body temperature measuring equipment. Leaflets about how to counter the spread of MERS are being distributed by all airlines in MERS-hit countries and masks given to passengers who want them.