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PostPosted: Mon Jun 08, 2015 8:17 am 
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Hong Kong Issues South Korea MERS Travel Warning

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 08, 2015 8:18 am 
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MONDAY, JUNE 08, 2015
BREAKING NEWS

08 JUNE, 2015, 04:03 PM
Hong Kong issues South Korea travel warning in 'serious' response to Mers outbreak
Hong Kong this afternoon raised its response to Middle East respiratory syndrome from alert to serious level as South Korea confirmed six deaths and 87 infections from an outbreak of the virus.

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 08, 2015 8:19 pm 
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Hong Kong issues South Korea warning in ‘serious’ response to Mers outbreak
Response level now 'serious' given growing risk of a community outbreak in South Korea, and people are advised to avoid visiting the country
PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 June, 2015, 11:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 2:00am
Emily Tsang and Reuters

Image
Dr Ko Wing-man advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea. Photo: Franke Tsang
Hong Kong raised its health response level against Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) yesterday from "alert" to "serious" as the government urged the public to avoid visiting South Korea given the rising death toll and surge in infections there.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man advised against all unnecessary travel, but the government stopped short of imposing a travel ban.

The decision came after South Korea reported 23 new infections and the death of an 80-year-old man yesterday, pushing its death toll to six and the total number of cases to 87. With such a spike, South Korea now has the second-highest number of infections, after Saudi Arabia.



Watch: Hong Kong sets 'serious' response to Mers outbreak in South Korea

The Hong Kong government's move is seen as unusual and pre-emptive given that under its preparedness plan, a "serious" alert is usually prompted by the confirmation of a small cluster of virus cases locally. There have been no local cases, although China's first confirmed Mers patient flew into the city from South Korea on his way to the mainland.

But Ko said the higher response level was needed given the increased risk of a community outbreak in South Korea, even if there was currently no concrete evidence to show the virus could be sustained effectively via human-to-human transmission.

"A health advisory is deemed appropriate. The strength of this advisory is already quite an exception," Ko said in response to queries on why a travel warning was not issued.

Ko said there was a rise in the number of third-level infections in South Korea - cases in which there was no contact with the first Mers patient, who had been considered most contagious and the primary source of the spread of the virus. Third-level cases made up 60 per cent of the total.

This was the reason to raise the health response level from the first stage of "alert" to the level of "serious", the second in its three-step system. "Emergency" is the highest level.


Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (centre), Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man (right second) and officers inspect port health measures for MERS at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Franke Tsang

Health officials also issued a "Travel Health Advice" notice to tell the public, particularly those with chronic illnesses, to avoid non-essential trips to South Korea. Visitors to South Korea or the Middle East should avoid health care facilities.

Ko said the health response level was equivalent to a red level Outbound Travel Alert by the Security Bureau, under which people are advised to avoid non-essential travel "due to risk to personal safety". Four war-ravaged countries are currently under such a travel warning, but it does not apply to South Korea.

Lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said the two bureaus should align their response levels, as an official travel warning for South Korea would allow travellers who cancelled trips to be compensated by insurance companies.

But a Security Bureau spokesman said it would not make such a move at the moment as its travel warning was based on personal security, not health risks.

About 25,000 people cancelled trips to South Korea from Friday to Sunday, the Korean Tourism Organisation said.

More Hong Kong travel agencies have agreed to cancel package tours there after the government's move. On the mainland, more tourists are also cancelling tours, according to a report by China National Radio. Some travel agents are offering full refunds upon request.

International SOS, a firm that provides medical services to international companies, had received "numerous calls" globally about Mers in South Korea, but so far no company had requested any evacuations. Dr Ahmed Fahmy, the group's medical director for Hong Kong, Taipei and Seoul, said the firm had been giving health management advice about Mers.


Tourists wear masks as a precaution against Mers as they visit the Gyeongbok Palace, one of Seoul's well-known landmarks, on Sunday. Photo: AP

Three of the five University of Hong Kong medical students in South Korea have cut short their training sessions and returned home, while the other two will leave this week, a HKU spokeswoman said. None were attached to hospitals linked to Mers infections, she said. They had shown no symptoms and would not work in Hong Kong hospitals in the coming weeks.

Officials in South Korea have ordered the closure of nearly 2,000 schools nationwide and more than 2,300 people are under quarantine after having contact with Mers patients.

The director general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, stressed that the organisation would not advise any travel restrictions and said she believed South Korea would control the further spread of the virus by taking appropriate measures.

Chan, a former Hong Kong health official, said South Korea's culture of families looking after relatives in hospital may have contributed to the spread of Mers within health care facilities.

A WHO team including two Hong Kong experts - Malik Peiris, professor of virology at HKU, and David Hui Shu-cheong, professor of respiratory medicine at Chinese University - will begin work today in South Korea to evaluate the response to the outbreak, including why it had spread so fast, and advise on further measures.

The country's consulate in Hong Kong did not respond to a Post inquiry before press time.

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau



WHAT CONSTITUTES A COMMUNITY OUTBREAK

When the occurrence of infections appears to take place, or continue to spread, outside medical institutions; when a virus shows the ability to make sustainable human-to-human transmissions.

Source: Food and Health Bureau and microbiologists



This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Travellers warned as HK raises Mers alert

http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/heal ... scmp_today

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