Sep 052014

MANILA, Philippines—Health authorities on Friday stopped tracking passengers who were on the same flight with a Filipino female nurse initially reported to be positive for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, after a retest showed that she was negative for the deadly virus.

The test conducted by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) showed that the nurse, who arrived in the country on Aug. 29 via a Saudi Airlines flight, was not infected by MERS, Department of Health (DOH) spokesperson doctor Lyndon Lee Suy told a press briefing yesterday.

Lee Suy also disclosed that the official result of a medical test conducted on the 37-year-old nurse and her 49-year-old colleague before they left Dammam also carried a negative result.


Negative case

“What’s good about it is that when there’s a negative case, there’s no way for the infection to be transmitted because there is no source,” Lee Suy told reporters. “We can safely say that as of now, the Philippines remains to be MERS-free.”

“And the implication here as well is that all our activities of contact-tracing, of looking for those who were on the same flight as the two nurses will be terminated,” he added.

On Wednesday, the DOH announced that a Filipina nurse, who had tested positive for MERS,  arrived in the country on Aug.  29 via a Saudi Airlines flight.

Two days later, after staying overnight at her coworker’s house in Bulacan, she boarded a Cebu Pacific flight to her hometown in General Santos City. She was immediately put in isolation at the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City after receiving the initial news that she had the virus.

Public appeal

Health officials also promptly made a public appeal urging those who boarded the two flights to submit themselves to a throat-swab exam to make sure that they did not acquire MERS, considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)  virus.

The nurse’s coworker and the latter’s family also submitted themselves to testing at the Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City after she received a call from their supervisor informing them of the results of their test.

But Lee Suy on Friday explained that the DOH’s earlier actions were based on the information relayed by the returning nurse’s supervisor in Dammam as part of their “rumor surveillance.”

The official report of the medical test from Dammam was only received by the DOH on Thursday afternoon, with roughly 70 to 80 passengers already contacted for the swab exam.


Rumor surveillance

“There’s no way to prevent rumor surveillance. Everything starts with a  rumor. What if it turned out to be true? It’s up to us to validate. We don’t consider it a mistake but part of a process and investigation,” he said, dispelling impressions that the DOH or the hospital in Saudi erred in its report.

He added that the government cannot just sit down and not do anything while waiting for the official report to come in from Dammam.

“We don’t want to dwell on that anymore, we don’t want to implicate people. What is good is that people report to us, whether or not the report is right or wrong. That’s what we encourage people to do, to report to us,” said Lee Suy.

“From there, it’s up to us in the DOH to prove whether the report is true or false while waiting for actual results of the tests done. The government has to do some action,” he added.

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