Virus screening for travellers from Italy considered
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Virus screening for travellers from Italy considered

Sharp rise in cases in European country has Thai health authorities concerned

Health volunteers hand out face masks to tourists visiting Wat Pho in Bangkok on Friday. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)
Health volunteers hand out face masks to tourists visiting Wat Pho in Bangkok on Friday. (Photo by Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

Thailand may need to consider screening travellers arriving from Italy for coronavirus following a sharp rise in cases in the European country, health officials said on Saturday.

The screening would likely apply if cases escalate further in Italy, Thanarak Plipat, deputy chief of the Department of Disease Control, said at a daily briefing.

The Ministry of Public Health has already introduced screening of passengers from several other affected locations. Officials began screening arriving air passengers from Wuhan, the heart of the outbreak in China, on Jan 3, followed by those from Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei, Japan, Singapore and now South Korea.

All passengers from these locations must have body thermal scans and fever checks. If the virus that causes Covid-19 is suspected, the person will be transferred to a hospital. 

“We are afraid that the number of infected patients found is very much lower than the actual situation,” said Dr Thanarak. “The challenging point is that public health officers need to be able to trace all infectious patients and get them into the hospital system. If not, rapid spreading could happen in the region.”

Italian officials said on Friday that an additional 14 people had been diagnosed with Covid-19, up from six who were previously diagnosed in the northern part of the country — bringing the total to 17.

The Italian news agency Ansa on Saturday reported a second death from the virus in the Lombardy region, where the town of Codogno is now on lockdown. It came one day after the death of a 78-year-old retired bricklayer, who was the first local person in Europe to die from the virus.

Public health officials in the two Lombardy towns where the patients are from are recommending self-quarantine for 14 days at home.

Dr Thanarak insisted, meanwhile, that coronavirus risk in Thailand is still quite low, despite public concern that thousands of Chinese travellers were in the country in January — and people can show no symptoms for up to two weeks — before the gravity of the situation became known.

He said that intensive screening measures must be further stepped up to prevent an uncontrollable outbreak, reiterating that the government has no policy to ban travel to affected countries or recommend self-quarantine at home after visiting high-risk areas.

According to the ministry, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Thailand remains at 35 patients, of whom 20 have been discharged from the hospital, including a male guide who was discharged from Chon Buri Hospital on Saturday. He was among 138 Thai people airlifted from Wuhan on Feb 4.

Meanwhile, the number of patients under investigation, a broader category covering people with pneumonia-like illnesses and related conditions, totals 1,252, with 246 still in hospital.

The ministry has also ordered the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) to stock more Favipiravir, an antiviral drug that the Chinese government has designated a core drug that could be used against the new coronavirus strain.

Dr Thanarak also cautioned against political rallies, since any kind of large public gathering increases the risk of infections spreading. He said now was not the right time to organise public political events, adding that there were other means to express political views. 

Emotions have been running high since the dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party on Friday. A student-led rally was being planned at Thammasat University on Saturday evening.

“The organisers must take responsibility for the health of people that are invited,” Dr Thanarak said. “If public health is the main issue right now, they should take a step back. If they don’t want to increase the risk, they should not organise it.”

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