Asian governments stepped up their preparations to ward off a swine flu epidemic on Tuesday. Most countries said they were stockpiling Tamiflu and other anti-viral drugs. Japan and Taiwan prepared to send doctors to screen passengers on all incoming flights from North America, whereas Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines set up temperature scanners at major international airports. A 51-year-old woman in South Korea was officially declared to be a "probable" case of swine flu, which would make her the first in Asia. Hong Kong was testing four cases.
A man walks pass a "wash hands" campaign to stave off bird flu in Singapore
Alarm swept across the Asian continent like a tropical storm. Although various officials insisted that there was no need for panic, residents from Hong Kong to Bali swamped local chemists to stock up on medical supplies in case of a massive outbreak.
The World Health Organisation warned on Tuesday that there was a significant danger a pandemic could break out.
Gregory Hartl, the WHO spokesperson in Geneva, said the “governments would need to think about organising larger-scale care for this specific disease in Accident & Emergency wards, should this happen. What do they then do with treating other diseases? Do they have the infrastructure, do they have the equipment, do they have the medicines? This is the time, now, to prepare.”
South Korea declared it would double its stocks of Tamiflu and other anti-flu drugs. There should be enough to treat five million people in case of a pandemic, Seoul said. Other governments announced similar measures.
Tightened screening measures at airports across Asia
Meanwhile, airports across the continent tightened measures to screen passengers coming in -- especially from Mexico, where over 150 people are suspected to have died of the disease, and the United States.
Thermal scanners were installed in major airports. They had already become a common feature when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, epidemic swept the continent in 2003.
Although Gregory Hartl from WHO said such screenings did not work because a person may “not be symptomatic on arrival at the airport even if he or she had been exposed or infected”, tourists arriving in Bali were impressed by the Indonesian government’s rapid reaction saying it was “a good idea.”
Swine flu far less dangerous than bird flu
The Indonesian Minister for Health Siti Fadillah Supari said people should keep matters in proportion and remain calm: “The H5N1 bird flu virus is much more dangerous than H1N1. Bird flu has a death rate of over 80 percent whereas swine flu only has 6 percent. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be careless. We still have to be very attentive.”
Taking the threat very seriously, Japan for its part urged its citizens to return from Mexico and tightened visa restrictions for Mexican nationals wanting to enter the country.
The authorities also booked 500 rooms in hotels near Tokyo’s international airport in case infected travellers and flight attendants needed to be quarantined. Tests take an average of 10 days.
Meanwhile, in India and Thailand the authorities tried to track down anyone who had recently arrived from Mexico and the United States.