Hunt widens for swine flu contacts
Mary Ann Benitez, Phyllis Tsang and Will Clem in Shanghai
A China-wide hunt was under way last night for more than 60 airline passengers and hotel guests who may have been in contact with a swine flu sufferer from Mexico now in isolation in a Hong Kong hospital.
The man, who travelled to the city via Shanghai, is the first person in Hong Kong diagnosed with the new flu strain, which is thought to have killed more than 100 people in North America since last month and has spread to 16 countries.
Some 300 staff and guests at the hotel where he stayed briefly before going to hospital - the Metropark in Wan Chai - have been confined there for a week under quarantine. But at least 50 guests who were out when the swine flu infection was confirmed are being sought.
While efforts continued to find them, as well as 18 of the passengers yet to be traced from the AeroMexico flight the man took to Shanghai on Thursday, there were signs the flu may not be as serious as feared.
Mexico, where most of the swine flu infections have occurred, cut its estimate of the death toll to 101, from 176. Fewer patients were checking into hospitals with severe flu symptoms, suggesting the rate of infection was declining, authorities said.
US experts said the flu strain lacked the characteristics that made the flu which caused a 1918 pandemic so deadly, killing tens of millions.
Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung said there was no need to close schools at this stage. And Hongkongers shrugged off fears about attending public gatherings. Sixty thousand thronged Cheung Chau for the island's annual bun festival.
However, a senior World Health Organisation official cautioned that, while there had not yet been a sustained spread of the swine flu outside North America, a pandemic was still 'imminent'.
The 25-year-old Mexican infected in Hong Kong remained stable in hospital. His two travelling companions and a local friend remain in isolation. Three immigration officers who dealt with the Mexican and his companions were put in isolation.
Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said all 36 passengers who sat in the three rows in front and behind the Mexican on a flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong had been traced and tested. They were the passengers on that flight thought to be at risk.
The drivers of two taxis taken by the Mexican have been traced and will be given check-ups. Their taxis have not been found, but Mr Tsang said passengers who rode in them were at little risk of catching the flu.
On the mainland, the Ministry of Health issued a directive late on Friday for local health authorities to treat the threat of an outbreak 'very seriously'. Their prime focus of concern was the infected Mexican's fellow passengers on the flight from Mexico City to Shanghai.
Authorities in Shanghai had quarantined all the flight's crew and traced 49 passengers - none of whom have flu symptoms - but were still seeking seven. Thirty-seven who flew on to Guangdong have been quarantined but four are unaccounted for. Authorities in Taiwan had found 18 of 25 people from the AeroMexico flight who flew on to the island. No information was readily available last night about the whereabouts of another 34 passengers on the flight.
Beijing banned direct flights from Mexico and Hong Kong is not ruling out denying Mexicans entry.
Despite hope that the situation is stabilising in Mexico, the virus spread to more countries, with Italy confirming its first case and South Korea becoming the second country in Asia to have a confirmed case.