False alarm quarantine gives me confidence in Hong Kong's H7N9 preparedness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 April, 2013, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 11:55am

These days, if you’ve been in contact with chickens or other birds or been to mainland China in the past few weeks, and you start to feel sick... well, chances are your first thoughts jump to the newest bird flu virus, H7N9. As the number of cases has increased – at last count, 82 – this virus is certainly nothing to be sneezed at, if you’ll pardon the pun.

You can probably imagine how I felt when I began to display flu-like symptoms. Not usually one to go to the doctor’s on a whim, I decided to play it safe and visit my local clinic. My symptoms alarmed my doctor – more so when she heard that I had been to mainland China within the last week.

She told me that I had to report to a local hospital and promptly called Princess Margaret to let them know I was coming, adding that if I didn’t go she would have no choice but to report my case to the local authorities.

The emergency room was chaotic with people crying, coughing and wailing.

After registering at the reception desk, a nurse took my blood pressure and my temperature, and then sent me to an examination room.

Barely 10 minutes later, I was seen by a doctor and a nurse.

Finally, a nurse sat me down and said, “We’re not really sure what you have, but to be safe, we’re going to put you in quarantine. You should expect to be there for at least a couple of days. If I were you, I would call my family now and let them know what’s going on.” I must have paled because she put her (gloved) hand on me, and reassured me, “Don’t worry. You’ll get the best care here. Nothing will happen to you.”

In the Infectious Disease Centre, nurses took me to a room that was to be my home for the next two and a half days. Not long after that, a nurse repeated all the tests that had been carried out downstairs in the ER.

I expected to see a doctor before the end of the day; instead, I saw two – neither of whom told me what was going on.

When people came to visit, they were asked to put on protective clothing and face masks. When they left, they threw everything away and disinfected themselves in a small room between my room and the corridor.

By the end of the day, I still had no idea what was wrong with me, except that whatever it was it required an IV drip.

I asked one of the nurses when I could expect to leave.

She replied, “It could be tomorrow or it could be in a week. We have no idea what’s wrong other than you’re displaying troubling symptoms.”

Late in the afternoon on the second day, after numerous blood tests and constant monitoring of my blood pressure and temperature, the doctor came back. “We can definitely rule out the H7N9 virus. We think you did have another virus but it looks like it is being flushed out of your system. We’ll keep you one more night for observation, and if nothing untoward happens you can go home after a checkup in the morning.”

True to form, I was released the next morning.

The main thing that I took away from the experience was that the health care system is already mobilising against the H7N9 virus. The speed at which my case was processed gives me confidence that the Hong Kong healthcare system is ready for an outbreak.