THE arrival of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) in Thailand has brought the deadly disease closer to Singapore. The viral respiratory illness, which was reported first in Saudi Arabia in 2012, recently made a spectacular appearance in South Korea, where its outbreak is the largest outside its originating country. Given its ability to move seamlessly, although only after a time, from the Middle East to North-east Asia, it is of little surprise that its ominous footprint now includes South-east Asia. In the case of Thailand, an elderly Omani man, who had travelled to Bangkok for treatment of a heart condition, was diagnosed with the disease.
Clearly, Mers is a global threat in the making. Given the need for and the ease of air travel, there is little that can be done to contain it in a country, or even a region. What matters locally - the danger of close contact with animals, particularly camels, in farms, markets or other areas where the virus is known to be in potential circulation - could be irrelevant in other countries where even the habitat and human habits are very different.
Yet, given the globalisation of life, and hence of threats to it, it is only a matter of time before a localised outbreak spreads into a national phenomenon that spills onto the international domain. As it is, over 1,300 cases have been reported from 26 countries. Mers is a reminder of the indivisibility of both good and bad in the global village.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), strong health systems that use strict infection control measures are the key to preventing the spread of the virus and protecting people, including healthcare workers. Apart from infection prevention and control procedures in healthcare facilities, enhancing surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections and focusing on early diagnosis are other means of containing the disease, WHO adds. The good news is that the disease is contagious only to a limited extent: The virus apparently does not pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact, such as when unprotected care is given to a patient.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has set the tone for Singapore's preparedness by warning that it is a matter of time before the first case of Mers is detected here. Measures put in place by the authorities include making Tan Tock Seng Hospital the designated isolation centre for suspected and confirmed Mers patients. It is imperative that citizens play their part by observing rules of hygiene and seeking medical help if they think they are at risk. Panic is not the answer. Instead, calm, collected and resolute action will help to steer Singapore through a possible crisis, as was evident from the Sars attack.