South Korea on MERS alert, struggles to search for 50 foreigners possibly exposed to virus

South Korea on MERS alert, struggles to search for 50 foreigners possibly exposed to virus

A 2015 outbreak of MERS killed 38 people and sparked widespread panic across South Korea
(File photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je)

SEOUL: South Korean health authorities are still trying to track down about 50 foreigners who could have come in contact with a recently confirmed Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) patient - the country's first case in three years. 

The individuals include those who were on the same flight as the 61-year-old male patient, who arrived on an Emirates flight in Incheon Airport from Dubai on Friday (Sep 7), local reports said.

A Korea Herald report on Tuesday cited the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (KCDC) as saying that it was difficult to track the individuals down, as foreign travellers in Korea usually do not have local phone numbers. 

The authorities are also looking at public surveillance camera footage, as well as local accommodations, in the hopes of locating the travellers, the report said.

The update comes two days after the KCDC upgraded its National Infectious Disease alert level from “blue” to “yellow”. 

A “blue” alert level refers to no immediate threat of importing MERS cases to South Korea, while a “yellow” alert means domestic importation of the disease from abroad has occurred.

The Korean patient was diagnosed with MERS on Saturday after returning home from Kuwait the day before.

He took two flights on his return trip - Emirates EK860 from Kuwait to Dubai, and EK322 from Dubai to Seoul. The second flight he was on had about 440 passengers, the Korea Herald said.

The report also cited Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon as suggesting that the patient may have been aware of his MERS infection during his stay in Kuwait, as he had asked his wife to wear a mask before meeting him at the airport.

The patient also chose to immediately take a taxi by himself to a hospital in Seoul upon his arrival at Incheon.

In a statement, the KCDC said it is working closely with the Seoul Metropolitan Government to track the contacts of the patient.

KCDC head Chung Eun-gyeong said that the authorities have traced and quarantined about 20 people who came in “close contact” with the man. They include medical staff, flight attendants and passengers of the plane.

“The names and information of other contacts, including the 440 individuals on the same flight as the patient, have been provided to local government agencies, and passive surveillance is being conducted,” the KCDC added.

In an update on Sep 11, Yonhap News Agency confirmed that five out of six people who had shown symptoms of MERS have tested negative for the disease. The sixth person is awaiting the results of a second test.

Nineteen South Koreans currently staying in Kuwait have also been tested for MERS and their results are scheduled to be released on Wednesday, Yonhap added. These individuals are believed to have been in contact with the confirmed patient.

The KCDC has advised individuals visiting the Middle East to wash their hands frequently and maintain proper personal hygiene. They are also advised against visiting local farms, coming into contact with camels or consuming camel products. 

These individuals should also avoid visiting local hospitals and medical facilities unless absolutely necessary.

Source: CNA/zl(aj)