MERS risk is low for tourists abroad

Some headed for South Korea worry, but ex­perts say they aren’t likely to get the se­vere flu-like dis­ease.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Soumya Kar­la­mangla and Vic­to­ria Kim

Just as peak sum­mer sea­son was gear­ing up, Kore­atown travel agent Chris Chang be­gan re­ceiv­ing dozens of calls from trav­el­ers con­cerned about an out­break of Mid­dle East Re­s­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome in South Korea.

MERS, a se­vere, f lu-like ill­ness, was di­ag­nosed in a pa­tient in Seoul last month and has since spread to 138 peo­ple and killed 14.

Chang, manager at Hana Tour USA, said the com­pany is still op­er­at­ing its South Korea tours on sched­ule, but he gives ner­vous cus­tomers the op­tion to cancel.

He es­ti­mated that 20% to 30% had can­celed f lights and tours be­cause they feared con­tract­ing MERS.

“It’s their choice. It has to do with safety, so we’re not go­ing to tell them they are or aren’t go­ing to get the dis­ease,” Chang said.

De­spite the anx­i­ety about MERS, health ex­perts say, Amer­i­cans are un­likely to con­tract the ill­ness, even if they’re trav­el­ing to South Korea.

All in­fec­tions so far have been as­so­ci­ated with health­care fa­cil­i­ties vis­ited by the orig­i­nal in­fected pa­tient and haven’t spread to the out­side com­mu­nity. Plus, num­bers of new cases ap­pear to be peak­ing.

“You’re not go­ing to get it,” said Lau­rene Mas­cola, chief of the acute com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­ease con­trol pro­gram for the Los An­ge­les County Depart­ment of Public Health. “Go about your busi­ness. Eat Korean food. Visit Korea.”

MERS, a virus thought to have come to hu­mans from camels, was first de­tected in a pa­tient in Saudi Ara­bia in 2012.

Char­ac­ter­ized by fever, re­s­pi­ra­tory prob­lems and kid­ney dis­ease, it is most likely spread through close con­tact with in­fected pa­tients, such as cough­ing.

A South Korean busi­ness­man who re­turned home from Saudi Ara­bia last month is be­lieved to have con­tracted the virus that be­gan the Asian out­break, the largest ever out­side the Mid­dle East.

Since MERS was de­tected there have been two cases in the United States, one in Florida and one in In­di­ana. Both pa­tients were

in­fected in May 2014 and had re­cently trav­eled to Saudi Ara­bia and re­cov­ered af­ter be­ing hos­pi­tal­ized.

In Los An­ge­les County, there have been 10 sus­pected cases of MERS over the last three years, but all were neg­a­tive, Mas­cola said.

She said that be­cause of the re­cent out­break, air­line work­ers are keep­ing an eye out for pa­tients with signs of the ill­ness trav­el­ing on the six di­rect f lights be­tween Seoul and L.A. each day.

An­gel Lee, owner and phar­ma­cist at Woori Phar­macy in Kore­atown, said many jit­tery cus­tomers came into her store look­ing for masks and hand san­i­tiz­ers in prepa­ra­tion for trips to South Korea. Many told her they had can­celed their trips be­cause of the dis­ease; those who couldn’t post­pone for busi­ness or fam­ily rea­sons bought dis­pos­able masks in bulk, buy­ing enough for each day they would be there, she said.

“They’re ask­ing what they need to bring, what they need to do,” she said. “It’s wor­ri­some.”

Lee said that since last week, the store had sold sev­eral hun­dred masks — the phar­macy nor­mally sells fewer than 10 a year. She said she was con­cerned about peo­ple vis­it­ing South Korea and bring­ing the dis­ease back with them.

Jeff Lee, direc­tor at the Korean Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Los An­ge­les, said the group was forced to cancel its an­nual trip for sec­on­dand third-gen­er­a­tion Korean Amer­i­cans to visit South Korea.

The group of 50 teenagers was set to de­part in early July for a cul­tural and his­toric im­mer­sion pro­gram, but when the MERS out­break be­gan to in­ten­sify, pan­icked par­ents called in droves to cancel.

The par­ents said their rel­a­tives in the coun­try ad­vised them not to send their chil­dren, Lee said. When more than 30 fam­i­lies pulled out, Lee said the group had to cancel the trip.

“It was dis­ap­point­ing, but we had no choice,” he said.

Dr. Robert Quigley, re­gional med­i­cal direc­tor and se­nior vice pres­i­dent of med­i­cal as­sis­tance at In­ter­na­tional SOS, said MERS tends to cause panic be­cause of its sim­i­lar­ity to se­vere acute re­s­pi­ra­tory syn­drome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 peo­ple in the early 2000s.

“That re­ally was a scare for many, many coun­tries in Asia and even Canada,” Quigley said.

He said that though both SARS and MERS are coro­n­aviruses, MERS does not ap­pear to spread as eas­ily as SARS and isn’t likely to spread much more than it has al­ready in South Korea.

“We’re re­ally not see­ing it trans­mit­ted in the com­mu­nity,” he said. “They’re wash­ing their hands, they’re wear­ing masks, they’re cov­er­ing their mouth. Those sim­ple prac­tices … can of­ten be the dif­fer­ence be­tween con­tract­ing a vi­ral dis­ease and not.”

The U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion does not rec­om­mend that Amer­i­cans change their travel plans be­cause of the out­break.

Hos­pi­tals, which have been given spe­cial guide­lines by the CDC for screen­ing pa­tients with MERS, are more pre­pared than ever to han­dle a dis­ease out­break be­cause of the re­cent scares of measles, Ebola and per­tus­sis, Mas­cola said.

Dr. Hares Na­jand, an ER physi­cian at Good Sa­mar­i­tan Hos­pi­tal in West­lake, said hos­pi­tal staff know that if pa­tients show up with a high fever and re­s­pi­ra­tory symptoms, such as a cough or pneu­mo­nia, they should take a de­tailed travel his­tory to find out if they re­cently vis­ited the Ara­bian Penin­sula or a health­care fa­cil­ity in South Korea.

So far, the hos­pi­tal has had no sus­pected cases, he said.

“Should the Kore­ans in L.A. County be wor­ried from peo­ple com­ing back from vis­it­ing Korea? No,” Mas­cola said. “Are we pre­pared to han­dle a case? Yes.”

Ri­cardo DeAratanha Los An­ge­les Times

MANAGER AN­GEL LEE

with as­sorted par­tic­u­late res­pi­ra­tors for sale at Woori Phar­macy in Kore­atown. Sales are up since last month.

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