Porous defense may help fan MERS

By: Jung Min-ho

With fears of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) spreading rapidly, a 29-year-old man, surnamed Kim, arrived at Incheon International Airport on Thursday from Saudi Arabia, where the largest number of cases of the deadly disease has been reported.

He expected to go through extra inspections, following media reports that the Ministry of Health and Welfare promised to strengthen quarantine procedures at international airports.

But no one stopped him. Like many other disembarking passengers, Kim just passed through a temperature detector on the way to collect his luggage. That was it.

“Before I came to Korea, I stopped over in China. I think that was the reason,” Kim told The Korea Times. “Like me, there could be more people who have come from the Middle East via other countries.”

According to the ministry, all entrants from the Middle Eastern countries are supposed to go through temperature detection twice and to fill out a health questionnaire, on which they should put their contact information in case of emergencies.

But the ministry is failing to screen people who come here indirectly. A ministry official at the infectious disease management department said the ministry only informs people of additional checks at airports through announcements. Kim said he heard no such announcement at the airport.

The number of MERS cases here is now 18, 12 days after the first one on May 20. And Kim’s case indicates that the problem can become much worse, with the ministry still unprepared to effectively contain it.

Korea has the largest number of MERS cases among non-Middle Eastern countries. And 682 people have been quarantined at ministry-designated hospitals or ordered to stay at home without contacting others ― a huge hike from Saturday’s 120 after the ministry expanded the scope of people suspected of carrying the virus, isolating everyone who came into close contact with any of the patients.

Initially, the ministry only isolated people who came into close contact with the first patient, who caught the disease while traveling in the Middle East in April.

Patients are released if they show no symptoms of the disease for 14 days, the incubation period for MERS.

The government has placed a temporary travel ban on people exposed to the virus as part of efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.

This came after a Korean man who flew to China, despite exhibiting the symptoms of MERS, was later confirmed to have contracted the disease.

Minister Moon Hyung-pyo apologized for the ministry’s poor handling of MERS, Sunday, and said “this week will become a critical crossroads over whether it will continue to spread.”

MERS is a viral respiratory illness that has a fatality rate of about 40 percent. With no vaccine, the spike in cases is possibly suggesting a mutation of the virus or increased people-to-people transfers.

Since the first case was confirmed in Saudi Arabia in 2012, nearly 1,140 people have been diagnosed with MERS, with 431 deaths across 24 countries.