Swine flu: HK isolates hotel

HONG KONG: Hundreds of tourists and employees were under quarantine in a downtown Hong Kong hotel Saturday after a Mexican guest tested positive for swine flu. With the outbreak on its doorstep, China suspended direct flights from the Latin American country.

Hours after the first confirmed case in Asia was reported, the continent got its second: Tests showed a South Korean woman also had the disease. She has been under quarantine since returning earlier this week from Mexico, the epicenter of the disease.

Nearly 170 people suspected of having swine flu have died in Mexico, where there are also almost 2,500 suspected cases. One toddler has died in the United States, which has 155 confirmed cases. Half a dozen countries in Europe have confirmed cases, as do Canada, Israel and New Zealand.

Though U.S. officials have already begun to express hope the epidemic may fizzle, authorities sprang into action in Hong Kong, where memories of 2003's deadly SARS outbreak are still fresh.

Experts fear the disease will be more difficult to contain if it begins to spread through Asia's densely populated countries.

Health workers in white bodysuits patrolled the lobby of Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong early Saturday as guests picked up bottles of water, chocolate milk and bread before returning to their rooms by elevator. About a dozen police officers wearing masks guarded the building, which was cordoned off with police tape.

An Australian tourist who spent the night with friends in a Hong Kong suburb returned to the hotel Saturday morning to join the quarantine.

James Parer, 38, told reporters as he entered the hotel that he was not worried because the territory could draw on experience from its battle with SARS, severe acute respiratory disease.

"Hong Kong is the best place this could happen because it should be best prepared," said Parer, who was visiting Hong Kong to attend a trade fair.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, an infected doctor who checked into a Hong Kong hotel later died, but not before infecting a resident of the Chinese territory and 16 other hotel guests. Those guests spread the virus internationally, which eventually killed more than 770 people, including 299 in Hong Kong.

Officials who did not initially impose quarantine measures during SARS were accused of responding slowly to the public health crisis.

By contrast, they acted decisively late Friday after a 25-year-old Mexican man was diagnosed with the disease. The patient was isolated at a hospital and was in stable condition.

"Given the current situation, I'd rather err on the side of caution than miss the opportunity to contain the disease," Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang said late Friday.

Reporters swarmed around the Metropark, in the city's Wan Chai bar and office district, pressing pieces of paper with their phone numbers against the lobby's window. Photos that ran in Hong Kong newspapers Saturday showed one masked guest flashing a handwritten sign to journalists overnight that said: "We will exchange information for beer and food and cigarettes." Officials have conducted medical checkups on about 200 of the guests and staff holed up at the Metropark. Sixty people who had mild symptoms were taken to hospitals for follow-ups, Thomas Tsang, controller of Hong Kong's Center of Health Protection was quoted as saying on radio RTHK's Web site Saturday.

Another 12 guests who refused to stay the hotel were being quarantined at a suburban holiday camp, the Hong Kong government said in a statement Saturday.

Kevin Ireland, visiting from India on business trip, said he wasn't that concerned.

"I'm not worried, but there are some people who are really panicked," the 45-year-old told The Associated Press by phone. "We don't have any books to read. It's boring, but what can one do?" Officials in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong hurried to locate the infected tourist's recent contacts on flights from Mexico to Shanghai and from Shanghai to Hong Kong.

The patient, who was not identified, arrived in Shanghai on AeroMexico flight AM 98 and continued on to Hong Kong on China Eastern Airlines flight MU 505. He developed a fever after arriving in the territory Thursday afternoon.

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 Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a notice on its Web site that it would suspend flights from Mexico to Shanghai, the only direct flight to the mainland. The government was also looking for 11 people who arrived on a flight from Mexico last week and traveled to southern China, raising questions about whether Beijing can effectively track those who could be infected.

In Hong Kong, Secretary for Food and Health York Chow said Saturday officials were still tracking down the two taxi drivers who drove the Mexican from the airport to his hotel and from his hotel to the hospital and urged them to contact authorities.

Two other travelers and a friend the man met with during his stay have been isolated in a hospital but have not shown symptoms of illness, Chow said late Friday.

South Korea also confirmed its first case of the disease on Saturday, state disease control center chief Lee Jong-koo said. The 51-year-old woman returned from Mexico on April 26 and reported to authorities the next day that she had flu symptoms. She has since been quarantined, but a doctor treating her told reporters Saturday that she is in good condition with few symptoms.

The country has one other probable case.