New Zika monitoring system for travelers

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New Zika monitoring system for travelers

Following Korea’s first confirmed case of a Zika virus patient, health authorities and the ruling party proposed Wednesday to strengthen its monitoring system for people coming from countries with outbreaks of either the mosquito-borne disease or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

The Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said these monitoring efforts are being carried out in cooperation with Korea’s three leading mobile carriers - KT, SK Telecom and LG U+.

“While it’s possible to collect information on people coming directly from countries where MERS or Zika virus outbreaks have occurred,” Health Minister Chung Chin-youb said, “it is difficult to keep track of those who have only briefly visited a third country and returned, so we have decided to use international roaming records.”

The government should consider implementing a smart quarantine system, Chung said at the ruling Saenuri Party’s emergency meeting to advise on the response to the Zika virus, as this would help the government keep the spread of such infectious diseases in check.

He added that a trial run would take place with KT through March, and the plan will extend to SK Telecom and LG U+ by the end of the year. The trial, which will also involve planning by the CDC and the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, will capitalize on most travelers’ use of international roaming on their mobile devices. Automatic text messages will be sent to travelers entering countries where Zika is rampant.

The government is also pushing to enable airport authorities to automatically monitor passengers’ temperatures and symptoms.

The Aedes mosquito, not found in Korea, is the primary vector for the Zika virus, which most often presents symptoms of fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. However, symptoms can sometimes be so mild that patients don’t realize they’re infected.

There is currently no vaccine or medicinal treatment for the virus, though the mortality rate is extremely low. Nevertheless, the disease is widely feared as it may lead to microcephaly in babies, a medical condition causing incomplete brain development. However, the causal link between microcephaly and the Zika virus remains unproven.

Korea’s first Zika patient, a 43-year-old man who contracted the disease during a business trip to Brazil, was released from the hospital Wednesday morning as he was on the road to natural recovery.

According to the hospital where he was treated, Chonnam National University Hospital in Gwangju, he was released at 10:50 a.m. after they concluded he posed no risk of transmission.

“The patient’s condition has improved, and it was determined there was no need for hospital treatment,” his doctor said.

His wife and children have been examined as well, but according to health authorities, they have presented no symptoms thus far.

The man from Gwangyang, South Jeolla, visited Brazil from Feb. 17 and returned to Korea after a layover in Germany on March 11. On March 16, he came down with a fever and visited a local clinic two days later in Gwangyang. He informed his doctor that he had visited Brazil but was allowed to return home. However, according to standard procedures, the clinic should have contacted health authorities.

Authorities were eventually notified after the patient experienced further symptoms, including muscle cramps and rashes. He subsequently returned to the clinic on Monday.

The CDC on Tuesday confirmed the country’s first Zika case but said the probability that the disease would spread remains low.

Health authorities do not plan to take any measures against the Gwangyang clinic doctor who failed to initially report the patient.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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