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After SARS, China takes no chances

world Updated: May 02, 2009 23:10 IST
Reshma Patil

As Hong Kong reported Asia’s first confirmed case of the swine flu on Friday, the staff in this correspondent’s apartment tower in Beijing were disinfecting the elevators an extra four times a day.

By Saturday, when China had suspended flights from Mexico, the elevators were still being disinfected — but every hour.

In Hong Kong, the entire Metropark hotel with about 300 staff and guests is under quarantine after a 25-year-old Mexican who arrived from Mexico via Shanghai became Hong Kong’s first confirmed case of swine flu or the A (H1N1) virus that has reached 15 nations so far.

In Beijing, 15 of his co-passengers are quarantined in a local hospital though they have no flu symptoms. The entire flight crew is quarantined in Shanghai. A search is on to trace two taxi drivers and all co-passengers who were seated near the Mexican national on the flight.

Elsewhere in the capital, facemasks and disinfectants are selling out. “Everyone bought at least 10 (face masks),” said a salesperson at a pharmacy in Beijing’s Muslim residential area, to the official media agency Xinhua on Friday.

Authorities say there is no need for panic. But with memories of the battle six years ago against an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that had killed hundreds in China and Hong Kong still fresh, officials and residents are not taking any chances.

Earlier this week, the top leadership of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao presided over briefings on the plans to prevent a potential epidemic.

On Thursday at the Hong Kong airport, this correspondent observed a systematic procedure to screen passengers from affected nations. Announcements made by the minute requested passengers to hand over health declaration forms to staff wearing facemasks at collection points across the airport.

In flight, the crew distributed leaflets from the Hong Kong health department that listed preventive measures against avian influenza and hotline numbers.

“We have to do our best to prepare for the worst,” health minister Chen Zhu was earlier reported saying. He announced this week that China has developed a method for a quick diagnosis of the H1N1 influenza.

On Saturday, Beijing announced that passengers arriving by air, land and sea from the affected nations would be subject to two temperature checks.

People with temperature above 38 degrees Celsius would undergo ‘further examination,’ said state media reports.

Xinhua said that most hospitals have set up separate 24-hour consulting rooms for patients with fever.

For China, epidemic monitoring for this virus is on par with that for SARS.