China's Aggressive Swine Flu Measures Land Healthy Travelers in Quarantine

Miguel Gomez of Alexandria, in China for his anniversary, was isolated for having a temperature of 98.9 degrees.
Miguel Gomez of Alexandria, in China for his anniversary, was isolated for having a temperature of 98.9 degrees. (Courtesy Of Miguel Gomez)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 29, 2009

BEIJING, May 28 -- In ordinary times, Miguel Gomez's temperature of 98.9 degrees Fahrenheit, a mere 0.3 degrees above the benchmark for normal, would hardly be cause for alarm. But to the Chinese medical officials who boarded his flight last week to search for passengers with signs of swine flu, it was enough to deem him a public health threat.

Gomez, a 29-year-old Alexandria native, was separated from his wife, ordered to put on a mask and rushed by ambulance to a quarantine facility near the airport.

"I was feeling a little scared," Gomez recalled, "mainly because I had no way of contacting anyone."

Although he was eventually found to be free of any serious illness, including swine flu, Gomez spent three days confined in an infectious disease ward. He did not see a single uncovered human face his entire stay.

Doctors and nurses in head-to-toe biohazard suits sampled his blood, swabbed his throat and came into his room every few hours to test his temperature. Anonymous hands pushed meals through a small hole. Receptionists wearing masks passed messages to him by rapping on his only window, which faced inside the facility so he could be observed around the clock.

While the spread of swine flu seems to have slowed for the time being, and other countries have relaxed previous restrictions on public gatherings and travel, China has become increasingly vigilant -- throwing several thousand foreigners and Chinese nationals into quarantine facilities for having little more than a cough, runny nose or slight temperature and having been in contact with someone with a suspected case of swine flu.

Some public health experts say its aggressive measures to deal with a possible pandemic -- devised after China's slow and secretive response to the deadly SARS virus in 2003 was blamed for spreading the respiratory disease -- should serve as a model for other countries. Statistically speaking, China's efforts have been an amazing success this time around. Of a total of 13,400 confirmed infections worldwide, only 14 have been in China, though nearly a fifth of the world's population lives within its borders.

From a public relations standpoint, however, China's medical checks and quarantine procedures have been a disaster.

Mexico has accused China of unfairly targeting Mexican nationals with no symptoms, even those who had not been to Mexico in months. The situation has been so tense that Mexico chartered a plane this month to bring some of its citizens home. In the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, an entire hotel, the Metropark, was quarantined -- at great expense to the hotel and at great inconvenience to the approximately 240 guests, some of whom blogged about the resulting boredom and heavy drinking -- after one person staying there was found to have swine flu.

This week, 21 students and three teachers from the private Barrie School in Silver Spring have been quarantined on two floors of a four-star hotel in Kaili, a city in the southwestern province of Guizhou. A fellow passenger on the group's flight from the United States had a fever, but the high school students are symptom-free. The teenagers, who arrived in China on May 22, have been told they will be able to leave the hotel Friday -- giving them just one day for sightseeing before their flight home on Sunday.

"It's not what they expected, but they're having an adventure," said Debbie Silverman of Silver Spring, mother of a 16-year-old on the Barrie trip. "They're learning how not every place is like the United States, that's for sure."

Chinese officials deny that particular nationalities are being singled out for scrutiny and say all those under quarantine are being treated well. The measures are not "discriminatory in nature," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu. "The issue is purely a matter of public health."


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