Ona: Philippines is MERS-free

MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) – The country is free from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) Coronavirus infection – for now.

"We are clean, we are free from [MERS]," Health Secretary Enrique Ona said on Monday, April 21, in an interview with ANC's Headstart.

Ona made the statement after the Philippine health department retested the first laboratory-confirmed case in the country – an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) who arrived from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) last week. The local test result was  negative. The OFW  had tested positive in UAE after he was exposed to a fellow Filipino who reportedly died of the virus last April 10

Ona said the different result of the Philippines test could mean that the OFW was able to overcome the infection, making him "free from the virus and therefore also of the disease."

Even the OFW's family members and others who had contact with him also tested negative, Ona said. 

Despite the good news, the Department of Health (DOH) is not lowering its alert against the MERS or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus – a highly fatal, influenza-like illness characterized by fever, cough, and often with diarrhea.

Out of 414 passengers on Etihad Airways flight EY 0424 – the OFW's flight last April 15 – DOH had the contact details of 373 passengers. 173 has been contacted. 

The Philippine National Police (PNP) in a statement said they were "in full coordination" with the DOH in its operation to identify and locate the remaining passengers.

"During mandatory quarantine operations, police officers are also directed to employ reasonable force in accordance with RA 9271 or the Quarantine Law of 2004," PNP Directorate for Operations Police Director Ricardo C Marquez said in the statement.

As of 8am Monday, Malacañang said 100 out of the 414 passengers had been tested. All 100 were tested negative while the DOH is awaiting results for the other 73. (READ: OFW's co-passengers asked to check for MERS)

DOH is still getting in touch with the rest of the passengers, but Ona expects all of them to test negative. 

"I expect all of them to turn negative because the patient himself and the family who accompanied him, there are 5 of them, as well as those who we were able to contact were all negative. However, we should not lower our determination to get in touch with the rest of the passengers," Ona said.

Continuous monitoring

President Benigno Aquino III has ordered the department to "intensify its efforts in locating and contacting" the flight's passengers, said Malacañang.

Ona earlier said Aquino also asked that DOH "create a heightened awareness among our people and prevent the spread of this communicable disease." (READ: PH boosts MERS monitoring after UAE nurse scare)

Any person with travel history to the Middle East and with severe respiratory illness are advised to be tested for the MERS Coronavirus.

Every case is reported to the National Epidemiology Center. The Research Institute for Tropical Medicine confirms the diagnosis, and the Bureau of Quarantine screens travelers at points of entry. 

The country's international airports have heat sensors from the DOH to detect the temperature of passengers and monitor possible MERS infection. 

Despite this, the department clarified there is no travel restriction to and from Middle East countries. Travelers are, however, advised to avoid contact with persons showing flu symptoms, and to observe frequent hand washing.

If they fall ill within 14 days upon arrival, they must report to any hospital and delay going to crowded places "until symptoms disappear." Hospitals have been instructed by the department to report any patient who may be suspected to have the infection.

– Rappler.com