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Inside China's Swine Flu Quarantine System

6 July 2009 10:50 am
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BEIJING—China has perhaps the strictest quarantine procedures in the world to limit the spread of the Influenza A H1N1 virus—as I found out firsthand today.

I’m the Asia editor for Science. My family and I have lived in Beijing for nearly 2 years. Earlier today, we arrived on a flight to Beijing’s capital airport from London, via Amsterdam. I had taken part in the World Conference of Science Journalists last week in London and my family and I had visited relatives in the United Kingdom.

In response to the pandemic, a medical team boards every international flight arriving in China and scans each passenger with an infrared thermometer. We disembarked, assuming everything was okay. But at a counter where passengers turn in medical declarations, we were pulled to the side and told that our younger son, Quinn, who is 6, had a slight fever and would be tested for the virus—a process that would take “1 hour or three.”

My wife was allowed to go home with our older son, while Quinn and I donned face masks and were escorted past gawking fellow passengers, out a backdoor and whisked by ambulance—the driver was dressed head-to-toe in a biosafety suit—to a downtown hospital. We entered a makeshift isolation ward outside the hospital and a nurse, clad in a surgical gown, face mask, and goggles, locked the door from the inside. It was a few minutes before 11 a.m. local time.

Quinn and I had our own room. A wall fan was whirring but the room did not have air conditioning and it was roasting. We were whomped from the overnight flight, and lounged lethargically on the beds. After an hour or so, a nurse came by and brought us a simple takeaway Chinese lunch. Soon after, a pediatrician came and swabbed Quinn’s throat to test for the virus.

We waited all afternoon for the results. If the test was positive, we would be sent to another hospital and quarantined for at least a week, and the rest of my family and other passengers from our flight would be sent to one of the local hotels that are cordoned off exclusively to house people under quarantine. I wasn’t expecting that outcome, as Quinn had no flu symptoms apart from fever. As time passed, and a nurse brought us dinner, I was growing anxious. But at last, around 7:30 p.m., we were given the all clear and released from confinement.

I understand China’s desire to curtail the spread of Influenza A, both to buy more time to prepare a vaccine and to limit the opportunities that the virus will mix with the far more lethal avian influenza endemic to the region. It seems to be working for now. Next flu season in the northern Hemisphere, all bets are off.

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