HONG KONG (Reuters) - Across Asia, people are closely following the global spread of swine flu from Mexico and preparing for the worst after the World Health Organization raised its alert level for the outbreak.
Authorities in the region have boosted surveillance at airports and hospitals, stockpiled anti-viral drugs and other supplies to fight any outbreaks.
Face masks and anti-viral drugs like Relenza and Tamiflu flew off the shelves from pharmacies in some cities on Tuesday.
“It’s really apparent, people have been buying face masks all day,” said Cyrus Chan, the boss of a dispensary in Hong Kong’s Wanchai bar district who had sold out his entire stock of 10,000 adult face-masks and only had child sizes left.
“Since SARS, this is the second time there’s been such a great demand,” Chan added, as a steady stream of customers asking for masks were told there wouldn’t be any new stocks of adult masks till later.
Still, the mood on the streets appeared largely calm, with the world’s most populous region, used to outbreaks of SARS and the H5N1 avian flu, not having yet reported any confirmed cases.
In South Korea, health authorities are testing a 51-year-old woman for suspected swine flu after a trip to Mexico.
“There hasn’t been much of a reaction yet. I’ve just had a few calls asking if we have anti-viral drugs or special masks” said a pharmacist in downtown Seoul who asked not to be named.
“I guess South Koreans have grown accustomed to these breakouts over the past 10 years. But I will be bringing in more Tamiflu to the shelves.”
Asia’s patchy medical infrastructure, poverty and vast populations in countries like China and India make it particularly vulnerable should the virus take hold and propagate.
China has vowed to disclose any human cases of swine fever promptly, while state-run newspapers on Tuesday urged officials to be open and avoid the kind of cover-ups that brought panic during the SARS epidemic.
The empty streets, schools and shops, worried citizens wearing masks and fleeing travelers now seen in Mexico are familiar to China, where in 2003 the SARS virus shut down much of the country, killing hundreds in the mainland and Hong Kong.
“I just want to be safe,” said a Hong Kong man surnamed Cheng who bought 100 child face-masks for his nine-year-old daughter from the Wanchai pharmacy.
In Singapore, stocks of high-end N95 masks were being depleted in stores, with a sales attendant at Changi Airport saying new stocks wouldn’t arrive till next week at the earliest.
“We’ve run out of the masks as people going to Europe or the U.S. are trying to resort to some protection from the flu.”
New Zealand meanwhile has quarantined 10 people including a teacher and nine children from an Auckland school and treated them as likely swine flu victims
While the local community was initially stunned, the overall public mood has reportedly been mostly calm, with the cases appearing to be mild so far. A further 56 people are being monitored. In neighboring Australia, five suspected flu cases are also being monitored.
In Vietnam, there appeared to be a degree of confusion toward swine flu which is not in fact linked to pigs alone — but an assortment of swine, human and avian viruses.
“Death is everyone’s destiny but this will be my last pig blood pudding for a while until the flu warning is over,” said truck driver Nguyen Huu Luong, as he finished a bright red bowl of fresh pig blood and herbs in downtown Hanoi.
The swine flu outbreak has killed up to 149 people in Mexico and world health experts moved closer to declaring it the first flu pandemic in 40 years.
The last such outbreak, a “Hong Kong” flu pandemic first detected in the former British colony in 1968, killed about one million people, while SARS in 2003 killed 299.
“SARS was like a rehearsal for us,” said Wong Pak-keung, a taxi driver who recalled those dark days when streets emptied and few of the city’s 7 million people left home without a face mask.
“After SARS, people are more prepared and know what to do.”