Swine flu begins to spread in Asia

PHUKET (ANN/The Nation): South Korea on Saturday reported East Asia’s second human case of swine flu as other countries in the region sought to minimize the risks of infection by canceling flights and imposing visa requirements on Mexico, the worst-hit country in the outbreak.

No cases have been reported in Phuket or elsewhere in Thailand.

The 51-year-old nun in South Korea confirmed to have the H1N1 strain of the flu has been isolated in hospital since Tuesday after displaying flu symptoms following her return a week ago from Mexico, the Korea Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The announcement came after Hong Kong on Friday night confirmed its first swine-flu case, a 25-year-old Mexican who flew Thursday to the city. He was taken to a hospital’s isolation ward, and the hotel where he was staying was quarantined.

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 In response, the governments in mainland China and Taiwan were trying to trace passengers who flew with the Mexican patient as China also suspended direct flights from Mexico, and Singapore imposed visa requirements for its citizens.

Tensions rose among the 240 guests and more than 100 staff quarantined for a week at Hong Kong’s Metropark Hotel.

Indian national Kevin Ireland, 45, said from his room at the hotel that the guests began joking Friday night and trying to make light of news that they would be confined to the facility for 24 hours, but he said the atmosphere deteriorated rapidly when they learned from television reports that the quarantine was actually for seven days.

 “This morning, there was a Korean gentleman, and he was way off the handle,” the father of two from New Delhi said yesterday. “He was screaming and shouting and throwing a tantrum. There is a young couple from the UK. She has been crying incessantly.

 “Then there is a South African couple with a 10-month-old baby and their grandmother. The wife was taken away for tests and they are really quite agitated.”

He said conditions were exacerbated by “brusque” police, a lack of fresh clothing and linen among the guests, and a dearth of information from authorities.

Meanwhile, South-East Asian health ministers prepared for a meeting next week that is to focus on the regional stockpiling of anti-influenza medicines to combat swine flu, officials said Saturday. Besides including the 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), host Thailand has also invited ministers from China, Japan and South Korea to the first such regional meeting on tackling the outbreak of the H1N1 virus.

“We’re in discussion with the three countries and still awaiting the response on their level of participation,” Thai Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thongpaksi said.

 Senior-level health officials are to hold a preparatory session Thursday, followed by the ministerial meeting Friday in Bangkok.

Fourteen countries have reported human infections with the new flu strain that has genetic elements from three species – pigs, birds and humans. The only country besides Mexico to report deaths so far is the United States, with one fatality from 141 infections.

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