Air travellers from Mers-hit Mid-East to be screened

FROM Sunday, air travellers arriving from Mers-affected Middle East countries, including hot spots Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will have their temperature screened as a precaution.

The move announced by the Health Ministry (MOH) yesterday is meant to help early detection of travellers who might have caught the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) - a disease with a close to 30 per cent death rate.

MOH's director of medical services Benjamin Ong stressed that the risk of an outbreak here remains low, as sustained transmission of the disease - when an infected person passes the virus to those beyond his immediate circle - has not been reported.

So far, no cases of Mers have been detected in Singapore.

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

That is why temperature checks are being instituted as a "pre-emptive measure" after the World Health Organisation's call this week for member states to step up infection prevention and control. At least 16 countries, including Malaysia and the United States, have reported cases.

Thermal scanners similar to those used during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak here will be set up at Changi and Seletar airports.

Feverish travellers will have their temperature re-checked by doctors stationed on site.

If Mers is suspected, they will be sent to either Tan Tock Seng Hospital or KK Women's and Children's Hospital for more tests.

Otherwise, they will be asked to see a doctor. MOH will also follow up with daily phone calls to check on their condition.

One difficulty with temperature screening is that the virus has a relatively long incubation period of 14 days, said Prof Ong. This means infected patients may not show symptoms when screened.

In addition, about 20 per cent of infected patients do not show any symptoms.

Health-care institutions will keep a lookout for people with serious respiratory problems and a compatible travel history. "All suspected and confirmed cases will be isolated and managed under strict airborne infection control precautions," Prof Ong said.

Mers, a disease which affects the respiratory tract and has no cure so far, was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. The virus is related to the one behind Sars, which killed 33 people here in the 2003 outbreak. There have been 305 Mers cases and 61 deaths in Saudi Arabia this year, up to Wednesday.

Yesterday, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) issued a travel advisory for Muslims intending to make the umrah - or minor pilgrimage - to Saudi Arabia. They are advised to ensure they are medically fit before departing and observe good hygiene at all times while overseas.

Malay daily Berita Harian also reported yesterday that those intending to go on the umrah have been experiencing a longer than usual wait for visas.

Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore honorary secretary Mohamed Roslan Jaafar said applications typically take two days to be approved but some people are still waiting after 10 days, adding: "Until now, there are no replies."

Civil servant Adicitra Zaini, 38, is waiting for his visa to be approved and said he was not too worried about Mers, having visited Saudi Arabia in 2009 during the H1N1 crisis. He said: "We'll take the necessary precautions... If given the choice, we will go ahead."

This article was published in The Straits Times.

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