Central Visayas airports screen for ‘viral pneumonia’ from China

THE Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) Cebu-Department of Health (DOH) Central Visayas is monitoring airports in Central Visayas for incoming flights from China due to an outbreak of a “viral pneumonia of unknown origin” linked to the said country.

Chinese officials, on Friday, January 3, 2020, said 11 of the 44 persons reported to be infected with the virus remain in critical condition with respiratory tract infection symptoms, including fever and breathing difficulty.

Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia have also implemented heightened surveillance. Hong Kong, for instance, added a thermal imaging system at its international airport on Friday, January 3, to check the body temperature of arriving passengers.

There are 36 flights every week between the Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA) and several cities in China. So far, no infected passenger has been reported.

The outbreak, which emerged last month, brought memories of the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Sars was “thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet uncertain reservoir, perhaps bats, that spread to other animals (civet cats) and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.”

In 2003, during the height of the Sars scare, the price of surgical masks in Cebu rose four times. It also prompted a private university in Cebu City to refuse to allow its 19 teachers and its principal to report back to work after having gone on a four-day educational tour in Hong Kong, which, then, topped the list of having the most number of confirmed Sars cases.

Jaime Bernadas, DOH-Central Visayas director, in a text message to SunStar Cebu, said they took the initiative to monitor airports in the region even if there was no formal order from their central office.

The BOQ Cebu started implementing heightened surveillance on Saturday, January 5, he said.

“Surveillance is a standard practice, but we will shift to a more serious and more rigid screening when it comes to serious events like this. All incoming (passengers), irrespective of origin, will be screened,” he told SunStar Cebu.

Bernadas, however, said specifics on the heightened health security measures will be disclosed once a department order is signed.

The official urged travelers who develop respiratory symptoms to immediately use masks “to avoid droplet exposure to others and seek immediate consultation.”

Mary Ann Dimabayao, MCIA Authority information officer, said the airport’s thermal image scanner has been in use even after the Sars scare.

“We were on a heightened alert status for the Oplan Biyaheng Ayos for Pasko 2019 until January 5. When it comes to the OTS (Office for Transportation Security), I believe they are on security condition 2. They are on heightened alert status as well,” she said.

Visitors from China (621,993) ranked second among the top three foreign markets in Central Visayas in 2018, following South Korea (with 1.3 million visitors) and ahead of Japan (with 464,564 visitors).

The influx of tourists in Cebu is expected to rise with the upcoming Sinulog 2020 celebration. (WBS)