THE Philippines will require overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to undergo testing for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Corona Virus (MERS-CoV) before coming home to shield the country from the fatal disease.
The new policy was announced by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) as the World Health Organization (WHO) warned countries to bolster their guard against the MERS virus, which has killed 152 people in Saudi Arabia and has spread to several countries.
POEA chief Hans Leo Cacdac said OFWs who will be going home from the Middle East should undergo the MERS-CoV test with the help of their respective employers.
“All licensed recruitment agencies are urged to have their returning/vacationing workers from the Middle East undergo the [MERS-CoV] test prior to their departure for the Philippines through the facilitation of their respective employers at no cost to the workers,” Cacdac added.
At least three Filipinos in the Middle East have died of the MERS virus.
MERS-CoV cases have been reported in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Jordan, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Kuwait, Oman, the Philippines, Indonesia, United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States.
Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, shortness of breath and diarrhea.
Cacdac advised OFWs to get anti-polio vaccinations before they leave for the Philippines.
The WHO said its emergency committee, which includes global medical and policy experts, had flagged mounting concerns about the potentially fatal MERS.
“They [experts]reached a consensus that the situation had increased in seriousness and that their concerns about the situation had also increased in terms of urgency,” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s health security head, told reporters.
The agency called on countries to improve infection prevention and control, collect more data on the virus and to be vigilant in preventing it from spreading to vulnerable countries, notably in Africa.
A total of 571 MERS cases have been reported to the WHO, of which 171 have proved fatal. In many of them, victims caught the virus in hospital from other patients, although experts believe that camels may also spread the disease.
The vast majority of infections have been reported in Saudi Arabia, and cases outside the Gulf nation have largely involved people who had traveled there.
On Wednesday the Netherlands became the 13th country outside of Saudi Arabia to report a case of MERS since December.
The risk of MERS gaining the ability to spread further and faster has raised the specter of a global crisis.
But the WHO has so far stopped short of declaring an international health emergency, which would have far-reaching implications like travel and trade restrictions on affected countries.
“It’s clear that there is no convincing evidence right now for an increase in the transmissibility of this virus,” Fukuda said.
“If it is really associated with camels, and all of the infections are from camels to people and it does not become very transmissible among people, then I think that there’s a reasonable chance that it would stay a regional infection.”
MERS is considered a deadlier but less-transmissible cousin of the SARS virus that appeared in Asia in 2003 and infected 8,273 people, nine percent of whom died. It caused huge economic chaos.
Like SARS, it appears to cause a lung infection, with patients suffering coughing, breathing difficulties and a temperature.
But MERS differs in that it can also cause rapid kidney failure.
Thursday’s closed-door WHO meeting was the fifth to be held on MERS, and another is expected in coming weeks, the agency said.