China Readies for H1N1 Virus

A Mexican jet has landed in Hong Kong to retrieve Mexican nationals held in quarantine for H1N1 virus.

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h1n1-303.jpg Police officers wear protective masks outside of the Hong Kong Metropark Hotel. Bystanders were forbidden from entering.
RFA/Qiao Long
HONG KONG—A jet from Mexico arrived in Hong Kong early on Wednesday as part of a mission to take home dozens of Mexicans quarantined through strict Chinese measures for the prevention of H1N1 virus, or swine flu.

The AeroMexico flight made its final stop after picking up passengers in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, and came after China suspended flights to and from Mexico over the weekend, leaving travelers stranded.

The jet was expected to collect 70 Mexicans in Shanghai, including 43 quarantined there, eight quarantined Mexicans in Beijing, and 12 people in Hong Kong.

China’s health minister has warned that the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, is increasingly likely to strike mainland China after Hong Kong announced that a Mexican citizen had become Asia’s first confirmed case of the disease.

That confirmed case would not be permitted to join other Mexicans on the flight home.

State-run media said national tourism administration authorities had ordered travel agencies to suspend tours to Mexico. Schools are conducting prevention education, and official media are vowing to quickly disclose any confirmed cases.

In Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 21 countries have officially reported 1490 cases of the deadly virus. This includes 403 cases in the United States and 822 cases in Mexico.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang said the H1N1 patient there was a Mexican citizen who developed a fever after arriving via Shanghai on Thursday. He gave no further details on the patient's identity.

Hong Kong authorities say they will close schools if one or more confirmed cases are found at schools and there are signs the disease is spreading.

Media reports say that authorities have 20 million doses of Tamiflu and other anti-flu drugs, and screening has been expanded at all entry points.

Hong Kong has meanwhile quarantined for seven days guests and staff at the hotel where the Mexican man who tested positive for H1N1 had stayed, Health Secretary York Chow said. "We will also prescribe Tamiflu for them, which is proven to be an effective prophylactic for this disease," he told reporters.

He said around 200 people would be affected by the quarantine order, issued under the control and prevention of disease ordinance.

Greater transparency

China's government has declared H1N1 a category II infectious disease, a notice Friday on the health ministry's Web site said. This means infections must be reported to authorities immediately and gives local governments the power to quarantine areas.

"Although China hasn't found a case of the Type A H1N1 influenza, according to the circulation of the virus and analysis of its development around the world, the chance of it coming to China continues to increase," Minister Chen Zhu said at a health ministry meeting, the notice said. "Prevention and control is extremely critical."

Local disease prevention and control centers and medical institutions should arrange 24-hour staffing as well as public health emergency response teams, the notice said.

Joseph Amon, director of the health and human rights program at Human Rights Watch in New York, said he is encouraged by the openness the Chinese government has shown in responding to the threat of the H1N1 virus.

"One of the big issues under Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was the denial and the refusal to admit cases were occurring. So I think on the positive side you are seeing both countries that are proactively saying ‘we are going to participate in international reporting and we’re going to track down cases and notify the WHO,’" Amon said.

"A second positive thing is that journals and newspapers have been much more proactively calling for that kind of transparency," he said.

During the SARS outbreak several years ago, China drew sharp criticism for suppressing information about the disease. The government then changed its policy, becoming more open in sharing information.

'Ineffective strategies'

But Amon criticized the Chinese government's approach to its handling of the quarantine process.

"On the negative side is a continuation of an approach, which has been particularly seen in Hong Kong with the
quarantine in the Metropark Hotel, of ineffective strategies that are also somewhat poorly handled," Amon said.

"It’s just inexcusable that hotel guests would be told by the government that they’re going to be held for 24 hours, and then they find out on the news that they are in fact going to be held for seven days. It creates a lot of ill-will and panic, and what that does is also directly undermine any efforts at quarantine because people hear about it and then do everything they can to avoid being quarantined," he said.

Amon also said that efforts by China's central government to combat the virus at a national level have been thwarted by local officials.

"The initial rhetorical commitment to transparency and accountability run into what are long-term problems of transparency and accountability at a local level," Amon said.

"Local officials do not want the pressure and the focus to be on their municipalities. So while you might have a national level statement of commitment, at the local level you are still having barriers and obstacles to fulfilling that," he said.

ASEAN measures

ASEAN health ministers are set to coordinate their fight against the flu at an emergency meeting in Thailand next week. The regional grouping has 500,000 courses of antiviral drugs stockpiled in Singapore and another 500,000 distributed among ASEAN member countries.

ASEAN also said it has stockpiles of personal protective equipment, but didn’t provide details.

In Vietnam, visitors arriving from infected countries will be isolated, and Vietnamese nationals are advised to avoid travel to infected areas.

But these precautions have not allayed fears among the public.

Nha Quan, a resident of Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Binh district, said Vietnamese are worried they will be forced to make further changes in their dietary habits after having to avoid chicken because of the ongoing threat from Avian Flu.

"Yesterday it was reported on TV that the alert level for Swine Flu is up to level five," Nha Quan said.

"We Vietnamese usually eat pork and when Bird Flu spread, almost all of our food was made with pork. Now that we have learned of the new Swine Flu disease we are all going to have to become vegetarians," she said.

The WHO Web site says "influenza viruses are not known to be transmissible to people through eating processed pork or other food products derived from pigs."

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest city, with more than 8 million people, has enough Tamiflu for about 1 million people.

Original reporting by RFA language services. Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters.

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