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HK hotel staff, tourists held in virus lockdown

HUNDREDS of tourists and employees were under quarantine in a downtown Hong Kong hotel yesterday after a Mexican guest tested positive for A-H1N1 flu.

Hours after the first confirmed case in China was reported, Asia got its second: Tests showed a South Korean woman also had the disease. She has been under quarantine since returning earlier this week from Mexico, the epicenter of the disease.

Sixteen people in Mexico and one toddler in the US have died from the disease. More than 700 cases have been confirmed worldwide, with 443 in Mexico. Canada, Israel, New Zealand and more than a half-dozen European countries have also confirmed cases.

Experts fear the disease will be more difficult to contain if it begins to spread through Asia's densely populated countries.

Health workers in white bodysuits patrolled the lobby of Metro Park Hotel in Hong Kong early yesterday as guests picked up bottles of water, chocolate milk and bread before returning to their rooms by elevator.

About a dozen police officers wearing masks guarded the building, which was cordoned off.

An Australian tourist who spent the night with friends in a Hong Kong suburb returned to the hotel yesterday morning to join the quarantine.

James Parer, 38, told reporters as he entered the hotel that he was not worried because the territory could draw on experience from its battle with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome disease.

"Hong Kong is the best place this could happen because it should be best prepared," said Parer, who was visiting Hong Kong from Brisbane to attend a trade fair.

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, an infected doctor who checked into a Hong Kong hotel later died, but not before infecting a resident and 16 other hotel guests. Those guests spread the virus internationally, which eventually killed more than 770 people, including 299 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong officials who did not initially impose quarantine measures during SARS were accused of responding slowly to the public health crisis.

But Kevin Ireland, visiting from India on a business trip, suggested officials were overreacting.

"I would prefer them to be practical, evaluate the risk more thoroughly before taking this stringent measure, but the government has different ways in approaching the issue," the 45-year-old said.

The government defended its decision to act late on Friday after a 25-year-old Mexican man was diagnosed with the disease.

"Given the current situation, I'd rather err on the side of caution than miss the opportunity to contain the disease," Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang said late on Friday.

A World Health Organization spokesman said the UN body supported Hong Kong's move.

"We don't have a policy on quarantining hotels in situations like this, but we like governments to be as sure as they can that they're controlling the situation rather than missing opportunities. So in that context, we're happy with what Hong Kong has done," said Peter Cordingley.

Reporters swarmed around the Metro Park, in the city's Wan Chai bar and office district, pressing pieces of paper with their phone numbers against the lobby's window.

Photos that ran in Hong Kong newspapers yesterday showed one masked guest flashing a handwritten sign to journalists overnight that said: "We will exchange information for beer and food and cigarettes."

Officials have conducted medical checkups on about 200 of the guests and staff holed up at the Metro Park. Sixty people who had mild symptoms were taken to hospitals for follow-ups, Thomas Tsang, controller of Hong Kong's Center of Health Protection, said yesterday.

Ireland, the business traveler, said some guests appeared anxious and others were just bored.

"I'm not worried, but there are some people who are really panicked," he said. "We don't have any books to read. It's boring, but what can one do?"

The patient, who was not identified, arrived in Shanghai on AeroMexico flight AM098 and continued on to Hong Kong on China Eastern Airlines flight MU505. He developed a fever after arriving in Hong Kong on Thursday afternoon and is now in a stable condition and isolated at a hospital.


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