Norwegian couple who visited S. Africa for tuberculosis checked for infection

SOUTH AFRICA — A Norwegian couple visiting South Africa were arrested after doctors complained that they were defying a quarantine order by leaving their “Welcome Home hotel” in Sandton near Johannesburg, authorities said Friday.

Geir Christiansen, a spokesman for the South African government’s health department, said Gustav Hoffmeister, 44, and his wife, Raisa Hoffmeister, 41, left a cold room Thursday night but were held until Friday when they were taken into custody.

“They insisted they had been put under quarantine because they have a weak immune system,” Christiansen said.

The South African government received the Norwegian government’s confirmation that the couple had been previously exposed to respiratory infections, including tuberculosis, before leaving for South Africa in March and that they were “fully capable of handling the isolation,” Christiansen said.

Hoffmeister is to be formally charged with violating quarantine, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, Christiansen said. He was released on bail Friday.

The couple visited South Africa in a car through official travel channels, the spokesman said. But the couple did not declare their current immunities when they entered the country to hand in their passport as required.

After their passports were confiscated at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo international airport, the couple left the country in a taxi, Christiansen said. The taxi took them to a new hotel at Sandton, where they were spotted by “private security personnel” who then reported them to the hospital, he said.

Hoffmeister had previously been reported to the South African health department as a confirmed tuberculosis patient, Christiansen said. He said officials decided to isolate Hoffmeister and his wife as a precaution because of their previous medical history and because of “unusual behavior,” and filed a quarantine order.

At Sandton’s Morgentaler Hospital, Christiansen said the couple initially showed signs of infection but were found to be uninfected after treatment, leading them to be released. The spokeswoman for the Morgentaler Hospital declined to comment on the couple’s whereabouts.

News of the couple’s quarantine orders was first reported in Friday’s edition of the Cape Times newspaper.

Mark Leonard, a British journalist living in Johannesburg, said he was among several people who took the Hoffmeisters and their Dutch guests to see a movie at a location called Hillview in Sandton. Leonard and others were surprised to see the couple released Friday.

“Apparently, since their arrival, the couple were up to no good, grabbing food at a local hotel, and people were starting to get worried,” Leonard told The Associated Press.

Another journalist, Ralph Venter, who works for The Telegraph newspaper in London, told The Associated Press he was a guest of the couple at the Hillview hotel when a waiter and a housekeeper told him they were under quarantine after the couple left their room. They explained that the quarantine took effect as soon as they arrived in Johannesburg.

“They were put up in a room with a window — but the window was boarded up with barbed wire,” Venter said. “They were waiting for three weeks.”

Venter said the couple did not eat or drink anything out of fear of infection.

“They could have just gone home and been perfectly fine,” he said. “It’s a bit rich. They weren’t interested in having contact with anyone else, and then they wanted to go outside and get into a car and drive around Johannesburg.”

It is not illegal for foreigners to travel to South Africa, but the European Union’s 2010 travel directive prevents travel to areas that are identified as having high levels of tuberculosis, communicable diseases or medical tourism.

South Africa says it has about 20,000 cases of tuberculosis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that between 60,000 and 100,000 people in the U.S. carry latent TB.

The couple is scheduled to appear in court June 13.

Their daughter, Nadia Hoffmeister of Oslo, told the Associated Press on Friday that her father and mother were in a Johannesburg hospital for two days and were being treated for sore throats, headaches and fever.

She told the AP that her father and mother told their relatives who flew in from Norway that the asylum system in South Africa makes it very difficult to enter the country. She also questioned why they have been isolated for two days.

“They don’t seem comfortable at all,” Hoffmeister said. “If they really wanted to run away they could have, but they didn’t. If they don’t want to stay here, they don’t have to stay here.”

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