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Asia-Pacific
H1N1 flu virus spreads into Asia
China quarantines Hong Kong hotel as Ireland confirms first case.
Last Modified: 02 May 2009 22:06 GMT

Thousands of people are wearing masks as a protection against the flu [AFP]

South Korea has confirmed the country's first case of the H1N1 flu, making it the second Asian nation to report an outbreak of the potentially fatal virus.

A 51-year-old woman has been in quarantine since returning from Mexico, Lee Jong-koo, chief of the state disease control centre, told a news conference on Saturday.

Seoul's confirmation came as China quarantined hundreds of people in a Hong Kong hotel and cancelled all flights between the city of Shanghai and Mexico.

A traveller who arrived in Hong Kong from Mexico via Shanghai has tested positive for H1N1 strain of the influenza virus.

All of the 176 passengers and 13 crew from the Mexicana airlines flight which brought the traveller to Shanghai will also be placed under "seven-day medical observation", China's health ministry said.

It called on all passengers from that flight and another which took the Mexican patient from Shanghai, to Hong Kong to get in touch with the health authorities "to ensure that all passengers can get timely medical tests".

Quarantine

Health workers in white bodysuits patrolled the lobby of Metropark Hotel in Hong Kong on Saturday as guests picked up bottles of water, chocolate milk and bread before returning to their rooms.

Special report

Police officers wearing masks guarded the building, which was cordoned off with police tape.

A Hong Kong-based infectious diseases specialist criticised the quarantine as an over-reaction and said it served little practical purpose.

"This is only one point in his journey. And it's not the highest risk point in his journey. Flu spreads through coughs or sneezes at close range. People who lived above and below him are nearly not at risk at all," Lo Wing-lok said.

But Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's leader, defended the decision in light of the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003, which killed nearly 300 people in the territory.  

"I'd rather err on the side of caution than miss the opportunity to contain the disease," he said.

India fears

India was also monitoring two patients suspected of having contracted H1N1 after arriving from abroad, according to doctors.

"Both of them are under observation in an isolation ward. We have done all the tests, and samples have been sent to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases," NK Chaturvedi, medical superintendent of the state-run Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, said.

In video

Medical consultant fields questions on the flu virus

If confirmed, the cases would be the first in the country of 1.1 billion people, raising fears that it could spread across the densely populated country. 

The virus is confirmed to have killed at least 16 people in Mexico, but officials estimate that as many as 101 people have died.

Tests are still being carried out on the other 85 dead.

On Friday, Mexico began a five-day shutdown of all but essential government services and private businesses in an attempt to halt the spread of the flu, but officials have suggested that the H1N1 outbreak may not be as severe as first feared.

"This isn't to say we are lowering our guard or we think we no longer have problems," Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, said on Friday after the first night in a week without any deaths.

"But we're moving in the right direction."

Jose Angel Cordova, Mexico's health minister, said that officials now believed there had been 397 cases of the disease confirmed so far, of which 381 sufferers had either fully recovered or were being treated.

'Running its course'

Barack Obama, the US president, voiced hope that the virus may turn out to be no more harmful than the average seasonal flu.

H1N1: At a glance


Deaths: 
Sixteen confirmed in Mexico out of 159 suspected. One death in the United States

Countries with confirmed cases: Mexico, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Israel, Britain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands, China, Denmark, France, South Korea, Italy, Ireland

Countries with suspected cases: Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Norway, Guatemala, India

Influenza epidemics:
Annual influenza epidemics are thought to result in three to five million cases of severe illness and between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths around the world, WHO says

"It may turn out that H1N1 runs its course like ordinary flus, in which case we will have prepared and we won't need all these preparations," he said.

Obama stressed that the government was still taking the outbreak, which has killed at least one person and affected at least 154 others in the US, very seriously.

Ireland confirmed the first case of H1N1 on Saturday.

Ireland's Department of Health said that the patient had traveled to Mexico recently and was now recovering.

There are 15 confirmed cases of the virus in neighbouring Britain.

British officials said that two of the 15 total patients being treated for H1N1 were infected by human-to-human transmission rather than having become infected in Mexico.

Germany and Spain have also reported such cases.

Italy was the latest European country to confirm a case of the virus, but a regional health official said that the man was already completely recovered.

Nancy Cox, influenza chief at the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said that it was positive that the genetic makeup of the virus did not show specific traits of the flu pandemic virus which killed up to 50 million people worldwide in 1918.

"However, we know that there is a great deal that we do not understand about the virulence of the 1918 virus or other influenza viruses," she told The Associated Press news agency.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday that tests had shown that the vaccine against seasonal flu would have little effect against the new H1N1 strain.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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