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DOH should step up efforts in airport screening for MERS

Photo credit: NIAID in collaboration with Colorado State University

Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) Congressman Win Gatchalian warned against a possible rise in the number of cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the country unless the Department of Health (DOH) improves the arrival screening system to detect passengers affected by the virus.

Valenzuela City Congressman Gatchalian issued the warning as two cases of MERS involving a Filipina nurse and a foreigner tested positive for the disease.

“This is what we have been saying all along. Now MERS is in the country. The airports should be more alert and the equipment should in good order. This problem should not be taken for granted,” Gatchalian pointed out.



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The solon already asked the DOH last month to implement stringent screening measures in air and seaports following an outbreak of MERS in South Korea, wherein 184 cases have been reported with 33 deaths so far from the deadly virus.

“We already called the attention of the DOH about the disease spreading to our country. It is time for the DOH to take passenger screening seriously to prevent a possible outbreak of the disease,” said Gatchalian, a majority member of the House Committee on Tourism.

DOH spokesperson Lyndon Lee Suy said the 36-year-old foreigner who traveled from Saudi Arabia and tested positive for MERS did not exhibit any signs of the disease when he entered the Philippines so the thermal scanners did not detect him.

The foreigner, whose name and nationality were not disclosed, is the second confirmed MERS case in the country, after a Filipina nurse from Saudi Arabia turned out positive for the virus last February. She has been cleared in the same month.

The unnamed foreigner is now confined at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), which has its main office in Alabang, Muntinlupa City.



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Gatchalian said the DOH should not take the problem for granted and instead strengthen their arrival screening measures and modify it to detect MERS.

“The DOH should innovate in order to improve their screening system. If the current one does not work, then it should be changed to better suit the system to detecting MERS,” said Gatchalian.

Gatchalian recalled that at the height of the MERS-CoV and Ebola outbreak, local airport screeners did not even wear protective equipment and did not have a temperature-measuring device. There was even a notable absence of medical professionals in the receiving area. Changes in protocol were only implemented later.

A study by researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found out that there is not one template for arrival screening in detecting deadly diseases, meaning arrival screening should be tailored to each disease.

Study co-author Dr Adam Kucharski, Research Fellow in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:  “Our findings show that airport screening must be tailored to the outbreak in question. The effectiveness of departure and arrival screening will depend on the pathogen, the
screening method used, and the current state of the epidemic.” (Monica Cantilero)