Hong Kong bolsters border flu checks after first H7N9 case

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Hong Kong beefed up surveillance of travelers with fever, activating part of a pandemic preparedness plan, after confirming its first case of a new strain of bird flu that killed 45 people in China.

Border control points have implemented disease prevention and control measures and body temperature checks have been enhanced, the city's Center for Health Protection said late Tuesday in a statement. Seventeen people in contact with a domestic helper thought to have caught the H7N9 flu virus in the neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen are in quarantine.

The novel avian influenza strain is often lethal to humans, though it doesn't transmit easily from person to person. The initial cases are prompting international concern that the germ may trigger a global contagion if it's allowed to spread and mutate into a more contagious form. Two of last century's three flu pandemics are thought to have started in China before spreading in travelers.

"The Serious Response Level under the government's preparedness plan for influenza pandemic has been activated while the CHP's epidemiological investigation and follow-up actions are currently in full swing," the agency said.

In addition to working with Shenzhen authorities, 40 medical staff were deployed to boundary checkpoints to boost temperature checks on incoming passengers, the center's controller Leung Ting-hung told reporters Wednesday.

Human cases of H7N9 in China date to February and surged in April, before agriculture authorities temporarily closed live poultry markets and quarantined farms to limit human exposure. The Geneva-based World Health Organization counted 139 laboratory-confirmed cases as of Nov. 6.

Hong Kong's case, a 36-year-old Indonesian woman, is in critical condition, Ko Wing-man, the city's health secretary, told reporters Tuesday. She had traveled to Shenzhen, where she bought and slaughtered a chicken. A 33-year-old woman who joined her on the trip doesn't have symptoms and tested negative for the H7N9 virus, the Center for Health Protection said.

Shenzhen is a 61-minute train ride from the downtown Central district of Hong Kong and a popular day-trip destination for shopping and dining. Last year, Hong Kong residents departed from the Lo Wu check point 35.4 million times, according to the census and statistics department. The city has 7.15 million residents, according to a government fact sheet.

The patient's 17 close contacts all tested negative for the flu, Leung told reporters today.

More than 200 contacts of the patient have been put under medical surveillance and offered Roche Holding AG's anti-flu medicine, Tamiflu, the health agency said. The Lady MacLehose Holiday Village in Sai Kung has been converted into a quarantine center and asymptomatic close contacts will be transferred there.

Travelers are advised not to visit wet markets with live poultry in the affected areas and to avoid direct contact with poultry, birds and their droppings. If contact has been made, they should thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water, the agency said.

"Travelers, especially those returning from avian influenza A(H7N9)-affected areas, with fever or respiratory symptoms are reminded to immediately wear facial masks, seek medical attention, and reveal their travel history to doctors," the agency said. "Health-care professionals should also pay special attention to patients who might have had contact with birds, poultry or their droppings in affected areas."

The Center for Health Protection's hotline (2125 1111) has been set up for public questions and will operate from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. As of 4 p.m. yesterday, 13 inquiries had been received.

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