Hong Kong quarantined hundreds of hotel guests and workers on Friday after a tourist from Mexico tested positive for swine flu, Asia's first confirmed case of the disease. With memories of 2003's deadly SARS outbreak still fresh, the government moved quickly to track those exposed to the infected man and contain the potential spread of the disease.
Health workers wearing full body suits and masks wiped the tables, floor and windows in a room at the Metropark Hotel as guests in other rooms waved to photographers.
It wasn't immediately clear if the room being cleaned was where the patient stayed. Later Friday, more than 20 guests wearing masks walked from the hotel to ambulances that took them away. SK Chuang, a consultant to Hong Kong's Center for Health Protection, said the guests had shown respiratory symptoms and were taken to hospitals. Police officers wearing gloves and masks guarded the Metropark Hotel and officials ordered a weeklong quarantine of the some 200 guests and 100 staff, all of whom were to be treated with the antiviral drug Tamiflu.
The 25-year-old man who tested positive was isolated at a hospital and was in stable condition on Friday. Officials also began tracking down people the patient came into contact with on his journey to Hong Kong. China suspended flights from Mexico to Shanghai, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported on Saturday morning.
The man, who was not identified, flew from Mexico to Shanghai on AeroMexico flight AM 98, then on to Hong Kong on China Eastern Airlines flight MU 505. He developed a fever after arriving in the territory on Thursday afternoon, Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang told reporters.
While the man did not leave his flight in Shanghai, the case still raises concerns about the introduction of the virus on mainland China. Health experts fear the disease will be more difficult to contain if it begins to spread through Asia's densely populated countries.
Officials were attempting to track down the 140 other passengers on the flight, paying special attention to passengers who sat near him, and urged the taxi drivers who drove him to contact health officials, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow told reporters. The patient, who was traveling with two other people, took taxis from Hong Kong's airport to his hotel and from the hotel to the hospital, but did not venture out otherwise, Chow said. The two other travelers and a friend the man met with with during his stay have been isolated in a hospital but have not shown symptoms of illness, Chow said.
Twenty-four Taiwanese citizens were on the flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong and traveled on to Taiwan on six separate flights Thursday, the island's Department of Health said. The passengers were urged to contact Taiwanese health officials immediately. The Mexican did not appear ill when he passed through Shanghai, but China will track down the other passengers on the flight from Mexico to Shanghai and quarantine them for seven days, the country's Ministry of Health said in a statement Friday.
In contrast to its tough measures Friday, the Hong Kong government was accused of responding slowly when severe acute respiratory syndrome spread in 2003 from southern China. An infected doctor who checked into a Hong Kong hotel later died, but not before infecting a Hong Kong resident and 16 other hotel guests. Those guests spread the virus internationally. SARS eventually killed more than 770 people, including 299 in Hong Kong. "Given the current situation, I'd rather err on the side of caution than miss the opportunity to contain the disease," Tsang said.
But the Hong Kong leader also urged calm, saying that all public activities would proceed as normal.
Even before the swine flu case emerged, Hong Kong officials had stepped up precautions, screening visitors for fever and ordering air travelers to fill out health declaration forms. The government also launched a citywide cleanup. Public toilets are being cleaned every two hours and escalators in wet markets are wiped down every hour.
While South Korea has reported three probable cases of swine flu, the Hong Kong case is the first confirmed in Asia, where governments have been stepping up precautions to prevent its spread from other parts of the world.
The WHO on Friday increased the number of confirmed cases worldwide from 257 to 331, but the number of suspected cases reaches into the thousands.