SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - South Korean health authorities are searching for some 50 foreign nationals who may have been in contact with the recently confirmed Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) patient, including those who arrived in Incheon Airport from Dubai on the same flight last Friday (Sept 7).
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it was difficult to track the individuals down, as foreign travellers in South Korea usually do not have local phone numbers.
Authorities are going through public surveillance camera footage, as well as local accommodations, in the hopes of locating the travellers and having them tested for the infectious disease.
The South Korean patient, 61, was diagnosed with Mers in Seoul last Saturday after returning from a business trip to Kuwait the day before. He took two flights to get home via Dubai - Emirates EK 860 from Kuwait to Dubai, and Emirates EK 322 from UAE to South Korea.
Flight EK 322, carrying some 440 people including the patient, arrived in Incheon from Dubai at 4.51pm last Friday.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon suggested on Monday that the patient may have been informed of his Mers infection during his stay in Kuwait, prior to his return home.
The fact that the patient asked his wife to wear a mask prior to meeting him at the airport, and that he chose to take a cab by himself when he rushed to a hospital in Seoul upon his arrival in Incheon led him to that conclusion, the mayor said.
It has been confirmed that the patient's wife drove separately to the hospital from the airport.
The incubation period for Mers - that is, the time between exposure to the Mers virus and the onset of symptoms - ranges from two to 14 days, and it is believed that Mers patients are contagious beginning one day before symptoms develop.
The confirmed South Korean patient already had one of the major symptoms - diarrhea - while in Kuwait, meaning he had been contagious prior to, during and after his return trip to South Korea.
More than 10 online petitions have been filed with the presidential office asking that the patient be punished for supposedly concealing his medical condition.
The fact that he tried to protect his wife while potentially exposing others to the virus, including the cab driver and those who later travelled on the same taxi, infuriated many of the petitioners. One of the petitions had received some 300 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is also searching for individuals who unknowingly travelled on the same taxi which the patient used to get to the Samsung Medical Centre from the Incheon International Airport on Friday. A total of 23 credit card transactions have been made for the cab after the patient was dropped off at the Seoul hospital.
The cab driver is currently under quarantine along with some 20 others, including medical professionals and flight attendants who are believed to have been in contact with the patient.
During his business trip to Al-Zour, Kuwait, from Aug 16 to Sept 6, it is believed that the patient shared accommodations with some 20 South Korean nationals. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the patient visited a local hospital in Kuwait twice during his stay there, as he had diarrhea.
The city government also claimed that the patient had postponed his return trip to South Korea from Sept 4 to Sept 7, as he was feeling too ill to travel.
The health authorities have been told by the patient that no south Korean national who stayed at his accommodation in Kuwait experienced Mers symptoms.
Still, a total of 19 South Koreans currently staying in Kuwait, who are believed to have been in contact with the confirmed patient, have been tested for Mers at a local medical facility, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said. Their results are scheduled to be released on Wednesday (Sept 12).
Symptons of Mers include fever, cough, shortness of breath and diarrhea.