This from Kathleen McLaughlin in Beijing
China may be backing ever-so-slightly away from controversial quarantine policies for those who enter the country with a fever, or even sit within a few airplane seats of someone with flu symptoms.
Within the past week or so, the country has halted its several-months-long ritual of health workers in full-body protective gear boarding every inbound international aircraft and screening each passenger individually for fever – a potential symptom of H1N1.
Travelers to China now disembark first, but still go through a mass temperature check before customs and fill out lengthy health declarations – similar to measures the country imposed during its 2003 SARS crisis.
Though China’s response to the global H1N1 outbreak could be normalizing, the country remains prepared to quarantine anyone with symptoms, in contradiction to the advice of the World Health Organization and to the dismay of hundreds who have ended up stranded for days in subpar hotels because they sat too close on the plane to someone with a fever.
More to the point, some health experts warn, China’s under-exposure to this somewhat gentle strain of H1N1 could put it at greater risk of a deadlier outbreak should the virus mutate into a more dangerous version. To date, China has had fewer than 2,400 reported cases, with nearly 178,000 cases reported worldwide.
Huang Yanzhong, a professor of global health at Seton Hall University, is critical of China’s H1N1 response, saying pegging the flu as a foreign disease serves no public health purpose. Often the source of global flu outbreaks, China now appears to be almost reveling in its defensive position.
“Scientifically what they have done doesn’t make sense, but politically it makes perfect sense,” said Huang, who is writing a book about China’s health-care system. “They want to demonstrate they are acting differently than they have in the past.”
“It’s more about the public image than public health,” said Huang.