Airlines scrambled to disinfect their planes over the weekend as nine new cases of the lethal Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were discovered in South Korea.
Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines began sterilising their aircraft and offering special training to cabin crew. Asiana is disinfecting all of its 74 planes and Korean Air is sterilising planes that fly to its three Middle Eastern destinations – before and after their flights.
Five of the new Korean MERS cases derive from transmissions at one of the country’s biggest and best hospitals. The virus has so far infected about 100 people and killed seven.
The Korean MERS outbreak is the biggest ever outside the Arabian Peninsula and scientists are baffled at to how a single imported case of MERS could have led to such an alarming number of secondary infections. (See: DFAT alert: disease that kills one in three is on the move)
The discovery of five new cases at modern Samsung Medical Centre in southern Seoul over the weekend means that a major new source of infection exists in the South Korean capital, a city of 10 million. Korea moved quickly to close more than 1160 kindergartens and 500 schools as an emergency measure.
MERS is beginning to hit tourism to Korea, with people cancelling visits as the peak summer holiday season approaches, the Korea Times reports. The paper said Koreans who had planned trips to the Middle East were also having second thoughts and asking travel agencies about safety.
In Taiwan, about 1300 people who planned to visit Korea have cancelled their trips, according to the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) and the Korea Association of Travel Agents.
In China meanwhile, the number of people who had been in close contact with the first patient in China with MERS rose to 77 in Guangdong, China’s provincial Health and Family Planning Commission reported.
Among them, 64 have been quarantined while 13 others – including 11 passengers on a bus to Huizhou boarded by the infected man – have yet to be contacted.
Health authorities in the Middle East and beyond are anxious to bring MERS under control before the next Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia begins in September 2015. That’s when millions of Muslim pilgrims from around the world stream towards Mecca and then later return home.
Written by Peter Needham