Mers virus

Health officials prepare to trace 200 passengers who shared flight to Hong Kong with suspected Mers sufferer

Health officials set to trace passengers after Korean man - whose father and sister were infected by the deadly disease - flew into HK with fever

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:49pm

Health officials are preparing to trace about 200 passengers who could have come into contact with a Korean man suspected of having Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), who flew into Hong Kong with a fever before taking a bus to the mainland.

The 44-year-old man, whose 76-year-old father and elder sister were infected by the deadly virus in South Korea, has been placed under isolation in a hospital in Huizhou, Guangdong.

Local media this morning cited Korean and mainland Chinese news reports as saying the man had tested positive for the disease in a preliminary examination but further tests were needed to confirm the diagnosis. 

Hong Kong has yet to experience a case of Mers but is on high alert. The virus is from the same family as the one that caused the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong.

"Action will be taken immediately on tracing the contacts of the man once he has been confirmed with Mers," said Dr Leung Ting-hung, controller of Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection, yesterday.

The man was placed under medical surveillance by the South Korean government last week after the country confirmed its third case of Mers. His father and elder sister were the second and third cases after coming into contact with the first Mers patient. The man ignored travel warnings and flew into Chek Lap Kok airport at 1pm on Tuesday.

Leung said the man was intercepted by a nurse at an airport inspection point as he had a fever, but was allowed to go after he denied having contact with Mers patients or visiting Mers-hit areas. He then took a cross-border bus, run by Eternal East Bus, from the airport to Huizhou.

There were 158 passengers on the Asiana Airlines flight. They included 80 Koreans, 73 Chinese, other foreigners and eight Korean flight crew. About 10 people were on the cross-border bus.

Leung urged any passengers who were on the same flight or bus as the patient to contact the centre for medical surveillance.

If the man is confirmed to have Mers, Leung said 30 or more passengers who came into close contact by sitting within two rows in front of or behind him should be placed in isolation.

The airport nurse has already tested negative for the virus despite after experiencing coughing and dizziness yesterday.

"If the patient has coughed during the flight or on the bus, passengers sitting next to and in front of him would have a higher risk as the virus can spread through coughing droplets," said Professor Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong. He added the government should not take the case lightly as it was possible for the virus to mutate to become more infectious or deadly.

He suggested people should carry wet napkins and masks in their hand luggage if they had to travel to South Korea.

First identified in humans in 2012, Mers is caused by a coronavirus, from the same family as the one that caused Sars. There is no cure or vaccine. The fatality rate for Mers is 30 to 40 per cent - much higher than the 10 per cent in Sars, and its incubation period is two to 14 days.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the man suspected of having Mers travelled on a Korean Air flight. The flight was in fact run by Asiana Airlines.