May 2, 2009

Hong Kong 'flu' hotel sealed off

About 300 people at a Hong Kong hotel have been placed under quarantine after a guest there became China's first confirmed swine flu case.

The 25-year-old man, who is now in hospital after testing positive for the virus, had travelled from Mexico via Shanghai, Hong Kong's leader said.

Local TV footage showed police wearing masks guarding the hotel exits.

Meanwhile, the UK joined Canada, Spain, Germany and the US in reporting person-to-person transmission of the virus.

Mexico, where the outbreak began, has started a five-day shutdown of parts of its economy in a bid to curb the virus's progress.

Mexican officials say the spread of swine flu - suspected in more than 160 deaths - is slowing, but international experts are more cautious.

On Friday, French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said two people were infected with swine flu, France's first confirmed cases.

The minister said a third person "very probably" had the virus. She said all three had recently been to Mexico.

The announcement takes to 15 the number of countries where swine flu has been confirmed.

'No panic'

In cases outside Mexico the effects of the virus do not appear to be severe, although one death of a Mexican child has been confirmed in the US.

The WHO has set its pandemic alert level at five - but says it has no immediate plans to move to the highest level of six.

In Hong Kong, the authorities have raised the alert level to emergency but urged residents to carry on life as normal.

"I assure you the Hong Kong government will try its best to conquer the virus," Chief Executive Donald Tsang said.

"I stress we don't need to panic."

The Mexican man is said to be in a stable condition in Hong Kong's Princess Margaret Hospital, after seeking treatment on Thursday night after becoming unwell.

The Metropark Hotel in Wanchai district where he briefly stayed will be sealed off for seven days, health officials said, and the antiviral drug Tamiflu given to about 200 guests and 100 staff there.

Medical staff wearing protective clothing were seen carrying boxes of equipment into the building.

Efforts are also under way to trace people who travelled on the same flights as the Mexican, and taxi drivers with whom he came into contact.

BBC China Editor Shirong Chen says confirmation that the man has tested positive for the virus has set alarm bells ringing beyond Hong Kong.

Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu said the virus was very likely to enter mainland China and urged the country to prepare for an outbreak, as millions start travelling over the May Day long weekend.

Schools closed

Meanwhile, the authorities in Mexico hope a nationwide shut-down ordered from Friday, covering two public holidays and a weekend, will help curb the spread of the virus.

Some factories will stop production and schools are already closed. Residents have been urged to stay at home, but it is not clear how widely the shut-down order will be followed.

The number of confirmed cases of swine flu infection in Mexico now stands at more than 300, officials say.

Mexican Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said on Friday that three more deaths from swine flu had been confirmed, bringing the toll to 15.

Announcing the figure, Mr Cordova said that new cases of the virus were levelling off.

But Dr Keiji Fukuda, acting assistant director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said fluctuations were to be expected.

In other developments:

• The US announces that it will buy 13 million new courses of antiviral treatment and send 400,000 of them to Mexico

• A flight from Germany to Washington DC is diverted to Boston after a female passenger complains of flu-like symptoms

• An aide to US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu who helped arrange President Barack Obama's recent trip to Mexico is being tested for swine flu, although the aide is said not to have been in contact with the president

• The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is fine for people without flu symptoms to fly and use the subway, a day after Vice-President Joe Biden said he would advise his own family members against using public transport

• Denmark reports its first confirmed case of swine flu

• German authorities confirm that a nurse who treated a patient with swine flu also contracted the disease, in the first person-to-person transmission in the country

• Test results confirm the UK's first person-to-person transmission of swine flu, in a friend of a couple from Scotland who were first in the country to be diagnosed with the virus

Several countries have restricted travel to Mexico and many tour operators have cancelled holidays.

The WHO, meanwhile, says it will now call the virus influenza A (H1N1) rather than swine flu - which it says is misleading as pork meat is safe and the virus is being transmitted from human to human.

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