Friday 16 May 2014

MERS: Temperature screening at airports from 18 May 2014

Air travellers from MERS-hit Mid-East to be screened
Temperature checks a precaution to aid early detection of cases: MOH
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 16 May 2014

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."

'Weigh move to go on Mid-East holy trip'
MERS outbreak there could affect health of pilgrims, community here: Yaacob
By Janice Tai And Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 17 May 2014

SINGAPOREAN Muslims planning to go on the umrah, or minor pilgrimage, should weigh their decision because it may affect the health of people here, given the MERS virus, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

He added that he understood the aspirations of the community to perform the umrah and haj as some have made extensive preparations and advance bookings.

However, he urged: "If you can postpone it, because maybe you have other opportunities in future, please give it some thought.

"We must not forget that this is not just about our health but about the entire community because if you bring back the virus, it can affect other people in Singapore."

MERS-COV, short for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, causes acute respiratory illness in infected patients. So far, no cases of MERS have been found here but Saudi Arabia has had 305 MERS cases and 61 deaths as of Wednesday.

Dr Yaacob said having Muslims leave for the umrah is "an area of concern" because 40 of the 48 suspected local cases of the virus were from pilgrims who went for the umrah. All tested negative.

Yesterday, the Association of Muslim Travel Agents of Singapore said it has not received any cancellation from pilgrims so far. It expects about 2,000 to 3,000 bookings for June, typically the peak period for pilgrims because of the school holidays. Some will also want to fast during Ramadan next month in the holy land.

"We've been through all kinds of sicknesses," said its honorary secretary Mohamed Roslan Jaafar, referring to the H1N1 and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crises when many Muslims carried on with pilgrimage plans.

"Everybody still wants to go. This is not a holiday, it is a spiritual journey."

Dr Yaacob encouraged these pilgrims to take the necessary precautions, as laid out in travel advisories issued by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and the Health Ministry, such as going for vaccinations and avoiding contact with camels.

Regarding a reported delay in getting the visas for umrah, Dr Yaacob said Singapore is waiting for direction from the Saudi authorities, who will have to balance the demand for visas against "the greater interest of all the pilgrims that are coming into the holy land".

When asked if Singapore is making early preparations should the MERS situation persist until the haj season in September and October, Dr Yaacob said he has already asked Muis to map out the various scenarios so that the country will be prepared.

Some Muslims who have signed up for the minor pilgrimage are not worried.

Madam Megar Nishah, 54, who went on the umrah in March and will go on a second pilgrimage next month, said: "I have all my vaccinations, and I'll be going in a group," she said.

Leisure travellers to the Middle East, however, are more cautious.

Dynasty Travel's director of marketing communications Alicia Seah said the agency has received no inquiries for trips to Dubai so far. "It's not common," she said, adding that companies often book retreats to the region for their staff in May or June.

"Last year, there were at least four or five groups, or about 200 people," she said. "But this year there are no enquiries for this destination at all," she said, adding that the drop could be in part because Dubai is very hot for this period.

Muis issued an advisory on Thursday urging pilgrims to ensure they are medically fit before departing and observe good hygiene at all times while overseas.

The Health Ministry also announced that air travellers arriving from MERS-affected Middle East countries, including hot spots Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, will have their temperature screened from tomorrow.

Travel concerns among Singaporeans due to Vietnam protests, MERS
By Alice Chia, Channel NewsAsia, 17 May 2014

Protests in Vietnam and rising concerns over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) are making Singaporeans think twice about travelling overseas.

Some 300 people have signed up to go on tours to Vietnam in May and June.

But the travel agencies organising them have urged their customers to postpone plans or change their destination due to the anti-China protests there.

Upheavals in Thai politics have also derailed the agency's plans, and 25 of its 500 customers have cancelled their trip to Thailand.

With researchers looking into the role of bats and camels in the spread of the MERS virus, travel agencies are also tweaking their itineraries.

Sarawak's Gunung Mulu National Park is a popular destination to observe the flights of millions of bats.

But customers have been advised to change plans to enjoy local dances and make handicrafts instead.

For tours to China and Middle East, some travel agencies are replacing camel rides with sandboarding.

Certain Middle Eastern regions are also losing their charm with customers.

Jeremiah Wong, senior executive of Marketing Communications at Chan Brothers Travel, said: "Pertaining to Egypt, from 2011 onwards, we have seen a 90 per cent dip in demand and bookings.

"But I guess we can better attribute the reason to the political unrest and the situation that is happening in Egypt, rather than the impact of MERS."

Agencies have also advised customers to buy travel insurance.

NTUC Income and AIA said travellers can still claim for medical conditions arising from political unrest and MERS virus infections, as long as travel advisories have not been issued by the authorities.

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