New Zealand and South Korea said yesterday they are investigating more suspected cases of swine flu, as hastily arranged measures designed to contain the disease’s spread in Asia are put to the test.
The region, which has had no deaths so far, has tightened already stringent screening at airports and transport hubs since the beginning of the week after the virus first showed up in Mexico before spreading to Europe and beyond.
With the WHO warning of a significant increase in the risk of pandemic and Mexico reporting a likely death toll of 159 — there have been no deaths elsewhere — Asia, like the rest of the world, is on full alert.
New Zealand, the only country in the region with confirmed cases, announced three more likely ones yesterday, taking the country’s total of probable and confirmed infections to 14.
With dozens of others in isolation or under investigation, New Zealand’s health ministry said all three new cases were people who had traveled to Mexico or other areas in North America recently.
“Because of their travel history ... we need to assume that this is swine flu,” said Julia Peters, of the regional public health service in Auckland.
In Seoul, the health ministry said yesterday it was investigating five suspected swine flu infections in addition to a “probable” case announced on Tuesday.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the people with suspected infections had recently returned from trips to Mexico or the US and showed flu-like symptoms such as coughing and fever.
South Korea on Tuesday designated Mexico as a “travel restricted area,” urging its citizens to cancel or delay trips there.
Mindful of the increasing numbers of confirmed or suspected infections across the world, Australia introduced new powers to isolate and detain suspected sufferers, officials there said yesterday.
Health Minister Nicola Roxon said that the new measures, ranging from extreme steps such as detaining or isolating for surveillance suspected carriers to disinfecting aircraft after they arrive from overseas, were so far purely precautionary.
“It means that we can act nationally, we can act quickly,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday.
Some 91 people displaying flu symptoms were being tested for the potentially deadly virus in Australia, but there are no confirmed cases of swine flu so far, Roxon’s office said.
Australian Olympic diving champion Matthew Mitcham, 21, is among those caught up the panic sweeping through worst-hit Mexico.
Holed up in a Mexican coastal resort town, he and diving partner Alexandra Croak, who took part in a diving event in Mexico City last weekend, have been ordered home by Australian sports authorities.
Six nations other than Mexico and New Zealand have declared confirmed cases of swine flu, but there have been numerous scares and tests throughout Asia, which still has bitter memories of the SARS epidemic in 2003.
China, heavily criticized for initially covering up the SARS epidemic, went on full alert on Tuesday but has no confirmed cases to date and has vowed full reporting should there be any.
There were scenes reminiscent of the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, which killed close to 300 people, with lines forming outside pharmacies as people scrambled to stock up on medical supplies and face masks.