Monday, May 04, 2009

Hong Kong hotel quarantine move stirs controversy

Travellers quarantined in a Hong Kong hotel for a week after a Mexican guest tested positive for H1N1 flu expressed frustration on Saturday at the tough steps and a medical expert said authorities had over-reacted.
Journalists wearing masks report outside the Infectious Disease Centre of Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong May 1, 2009 where a Mexican from Shanghai has been confirmed with the territory's first case of influenza A (H1N1). (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

Police wearing surgical masks sealed off the Metropark hotel on Friday night after test results on the 25-year-old Mexican man were confirmed. They ordered the approximately 200 guests and 100 staff to stay in the hotel for the next seven days.

The measures taken by the authorities in Hong Kong underscore the concern here about the new flu and the confirmed case, Asia's first. Hong Kong was badly hit by the SARS virus in 2003 and has had many episodes of H5N1 bird flu for more than a decade.

"As this is the first confirmed case in the Greater China region and there is still little information about the severeness of the influenza, we need to be very cautious in dealing with the situation. We decided to take comprehensive and stringent measures to prevent any massive outbreak in Hong Kong," a government spokeswoman said.

Officials said no one would be allowed to leave the hotel in the Wanchai district, an area popular with tourists.

"It just feels surreal because you are trapped," said Juliet Keys, who arrived from Singapore on Thursday to attend and planned to leave on Sunday.

"I'm fine but it is a bit frustrating because I have a three-and-a-half year old daughter (and husband) in Singapore."

Keys, speaking to Reuters by telephone, said she was given a health check and a 10-day course of the antiviral drug Tamiflu. Health officials held a briefing for those inside, Keys said.

"People are pretty good. A few are emotional, frustrated at not being able to get out because of things like work commitments," Keys said, adding guests had been given rice and some side dishes to eat.

A frustrated Australian man in the hotel told local television by telephone he wanted to leave.

Brice Chevallereau, a French tourist, checked into the hotel on Friday afternoon but did not stay the night. When he returned to the hotel on Saturday, he was told by authorities he would have to be quarantined.

"Why do I have to go inside?" Chevallereau asked. "I just stayed two minutes in the lobby. It's not fair."


The Mexican man arrived in Hong Kong from Mexico on Thursday following a stopover in Shanghai. He developed a fever after arriving and took a taxi to a hospital on Thursday evening. He is in a stable condition, officials said.

Authorities appealed for 142 passengers and crew on the same flight as the Mexican to report to health officials.

Lo Wing-lok, an infectious disease expert, said the government was over-reacting.

"He would have been infectious starting from the time he was on the plane. Think about all the people around him on the plane, while he was going through customs, waiting for baggage, in the taxi, in the hotel and when he got to hospital," Lo said.

"So how can it be effective if the government is just trying to isolate people in the hotel, it is a mission impossible."

Health officials said the "essential needs" of those inside the hotel would be looked after. They would also get regular medical check-ups and psychologists were on standby.

News of the infected traveller caused jitters in Hong Kong and some people were taking no chances.

In subways, buses, ferry terminals and on the streets, more people went about their business on Saturday wearing surgical masks, although some had masks fashioned out of cloth.

At the checkout counters in a supermarket, residents rifled through masks and sterilisers.

A sign nearby said: "Prevent flu infection."

Source : STAR
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