South Korea's MERS outbreak raises SARS-like regional health response

Governments in Asia are acutely sensitive about the possible wider spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) for good reason--many of them learned the lesson of not acting quickly in 2002 and 2003 when severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit economies from Hong Kong to Singapore as China originally underplayed the initial cases.

South Korea President Park Guen-hye

The stakes are high because of the vast movement of travelers between countries by air, and the equally packed daily commutes on public transport in cities such as Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.

That's likely why the English-language Korea Herald carried a story this week that South Korea's "failure to effectively contain the Middle East respiratory syndrome early on is damaging its national image."

According to the newspaper, authorities in Hong Kong may indict a 44-year-old Korean man on charges of offering false information about his previous contact with MERS patients should he visit again after he was diagnosed with the virus in China's Guangdong province following a stop in the territory.

Nearly 300 people died in Hong Kong in 2003 because of SARS.

On Tuesday, South Korea's health ministry reported the seventh fatality from MERS in an outbreak that began in May and that 8 new cases were reported, bringing the total to 95. The virus was believed to have arrived when a businessman brought it home from a Middle East trip.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said a quarantine in place to halt the spread from infected patients will be monitored stringently and the World Health Organization said South Korea would be able to control the spread. But alarm is growing and about 25,000 people cancelled trips to South Korea between June 5 and June 7, the Korean Tourism Organization said.

Still, the newspaper notes, Taiwan has raised its travel advisory level to yellow from gray, cautioning that travel to South Korea needs "special caution."

In Japan, health authorities have decided to conduct thorough medical checkups on all arrivals from South Korea, including Japanese.

The moves have caught the attention of South Korean diplomats.

"It should not been seen as a source of diplomatic tension. Rather, we should view this issue as a transnational one for which we should step up international cooperation," an official of Seoul's Foreign Ministry told the Korea Herald, declining to be named.

Separately, Xinhua reported that Vietnam's Health Ministry on Monday stated that the country is at high risk from the spread of MERS and ordered steps to combat.

On Monday evening, an official of Ho Chi Minh City Department of Health told Xinhua that the city has intensified surveillance at hospitals to isolate and treat potential first MERS patients, while Tan Son Nhat International Airport has already installed machines to measure temperatures of passengers.

- here are stories from the Korea Herald and Xinhua

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