China faces a growing risk of the influenza A/H1N1 spreading into its mainland although the worldwide increase of new cases is in decline, Vice Health Minister Zhang Mao said here Wednesday.
"Chinese medical experts believe the epidemic will continue to spread across the globe and China must remain vigilant," Zhang told a video conference on the prevention and control of the disease.
A 25-year-old male Mexican was confirmed on Friday in Hong Kong to be infected with influenza A/H1N1, and those who were in close contact with him have been put under quarantine in 19 mainland provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions as well as Hong Kong and Macao.
PREVENTION "EFFECTIVE" SO FAR
In the past week, China has initiated a joint prevention and control mechanism, adopted strict quarantine of people, goods and vehicles entering its border, stepped up epidemic monitoring and made active medical preparations for emergencies.
"The measures are proved to be timely, forceful and effective, as no A/H1N1 cases have been reported on the mainland and those in close contact with the confirmed Hong Kong case are under effective control," he said.
Zhang said the slowed increase of new cases might be due to the active prevention measures most countries have taken. Although no international travel warning has been issued, countries have all beefed up customs quarantine and other virus containing efforts.
"Autumn and winter might see the second wave of outbreak and the virus might mutate into a more fierce variety, so we must be fully prepared," he said.
He urged health authorities to beef up epidemic surveillance, reporting, treatment and research, and called for better preparation work including medicine storage and vaccine research and production. He also underlined the role of traditional Chinese medicine in combating the virus.
"WORST SCENARIO" ALERT SOUNDED
Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist of China's Center for Disease Control, said China has to be prepared for the "worst scenario" as it faces direr challenges of a possible flu epidemic, given its high population density, an enormous migrating population and uneven disease control capacities in different regions.
"The results could be more disastrous in China than in other parts of the world. That's why China is on the alert against the A/H1N1 flu," he told Xinhua on Wednesday.
"We should never be caught off guard, because currently we still do not know much about the disease, and what will happen in the future," he said.
Zeng said one important lesson learnt by the World Health Organization and China following the SARS outbreak in 2003 was to use drastic measures to stem the spread of the virus.
"The spread of the A/H1N1 flu is slower than it should be after the world has acted to monitor and contain it. But if we lower our vigilance, it will spread more quickly," he warned.
Zeng defended China's move to put under quarantine some foreigners from countries where the A/H1N1 flu cases were reported, saying that was to protect the health of the Chinese public.
"We should always prepare for the worst scenario while working towards the best results," he said.
A leading administrative law expert, Ma Huaide, vice president of the China University of Political Science and Law, also defended the government's measures to prevent an epidemic outbreak.
He told Xinhua on Wednesday that the laws allow administrative authorities to quarantine those who have, or were suspected to have, highly infectious diseases.
Ma was interviewed hours after a Mexican jet flew scores of its nationals home from cities across China early Wednesday, after they were quarantined for taking the same flight with the confirmed Hong Kong case.
The measures triggered Mexican claims of discrimination, although China took the position that this was a case equivalent to the country's Class A, or most dangerous, infectious diseases, such as plague and cholera.
China learned from its experience during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, Ma said.
"The country has improved its legal system to deal with such public health emergencies," he said. "The system has provided a legal basis for the government to carry out its disease prevention measures."
Under the Law on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, medical authorities are entitled to isolate patients who have contracted Class A infectious diseases and disease carriers for treatment, and to treat suspected patients individually in isolation at designated places until a definite diagnosis is made.
Those in close contact with patients, disease carriers or suspected patients should be kept under medical observation at designated places, it stipulates.
The Border Quarantine Law also empowered border inspection authorities to quarantine people coming from countries where infectious diseases were epidemic, Ma added.
"Both laws apply to foreigners while they are in Chinese territory ... it is absolutely legal for Chinese health authorities to put the Mexican crew and passengers into quarantine," Ma said.
Ma stressed that during an epidemic, the government had even greater rights.
Under the Emergency Regulations on Public Health Contingencies and Measures for the Prevention issued by the State Council, or the cabinet, in 2003 following the outbreak of SARS, authorities could even force patients into quarantine, seal off workplaces and schools and summarily incinerate or entomb the bodies of deceased patients, to prevent an epidemic from spreading.
The A/H1N1 virus is confirmed to be responsible for at least 29deaths in Mexico and two in the United States, and the World Health Organization has counted 1,490 people infected around the globe so far.
A World Health Organization (WHO) officer on Wednesday praised China's efforts to prevent a possible pandemic of the virus.
"Overall, WHO feels that China has handled the situation with influenza A/H1N1 quite well," said Vivian Tan, communications officer with the WHO China, in a written reply to Xinhua.
"China's experiences with SARS and avian influenza have prepared it well for the current situation with influenza A/H1N1,"she said.
However, the officer warned that "if it turns into a pandemic, China will probably not be spared."
What's important is to mitigate the impact of the pandemic by focusing on early detection, public information, social distancing and treatment, she said.
The 1.3 billion-populated country has mobilized several governmental sectors including Ministries of Health, Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and China Center for Disease Control to be engaged in prevention of the influenza's outbreak.
The State Council, China's Cabinet, has added 5 billion yuan (725 million U.S. dollars) for flu prevention and control work to nationwide health education campaigns about the virus.
The WHO officer said China's proactive response and multi-sectoral approach are crucial to ensuring a well-coordinated response.
STRANDED NATIONALS BACK IN CHINA
A plane sent to fetch 98 Chinese citizens from Mexico arrived in Shanghai Wednesday afternoon. All on board were in normal condition, the city's quarantine bureau said.
The plane landed at Pudong International Airport at 4:32 p.m. The passengers, along with a Shanghai-based infectious disease specialist who accompanied them, were sent to a hotel for quarantine.
China sent the flight under an agreement with Mexico, which has been battling an A/H1N1 flu outbreak, to send back each other's nationals.
The Shanghai Quarantine Bureau checked the health of all the people on the plane on its arrival, and sterilized the aircraft, luggage and waste.
China suspended direct flights from Mexico to Shanghai starting Saturday after the 25-year-old Mexican was diagnosed with A/H1N1 flu in Hong Kong.
QUARANTINE BEING LIFTED FOR SOME
Those passengers who have been under quarantine since May 1 for taking the same flight with the Mexican young man will be free to go by 6 a.m. Thursday if they show no flu-like symptoms, the health ministry said.
The passengers are now scattered in 19 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities on the Chinese mainland.
None of them had yet showed any flu-like symptoms as of 12 a.m. Wednesday, according to the ministry.
In anther development, 25 Canadian students were released Wednesday from medical surveillance in northeast China's Jilin Province.
The overseas students at Northeast Normal University were put under observation at a hotel immediately after flying to Changchun, capital of Jilin, on May 2, from Canada via Beijing.
The students have displayed no influenza A/H1N1-like symptoms, including fever and sore throat, the Jilin Provincial Publicity Department said late Wednesday.