Sunday, May 3, 2009

'Draconian' powers seen to contain swine flu

MELBOURNE, Australia (AFP) — Regional governments can invoke "draconian" powers if the swine flu virus reaches a worst-case scenario, from monitoring people in their own homes to seizing control of entire economies.

The SARS and bird flu scares of recent years have led many countries to develop pandemic action plans which involve sweeping powers aimed at containing the spread of disease among their populations.

Some have already been introduced as the World Health Organisation (WHO) steps up warnings of an imminent A(H1N1) flu virus pandemic.

In Hong Kong the first confirmed case of swine flu in Asia was recorded Friday after a Mexican man who arrived via Shanghai tested positive.

Authorities moved quickly to quarantine for seven days more than 300 guests and staff at the Metropark Hotel, where the patient had briefly stayed.

"Since this is the first case in Hong Kong we must be very careful as the chance of controlling and containing this infection is limited, we will try to be more draconian in our policy," said Health Secretary York Chow.

China has made similar moves in tracking down passengers who were on the same flight to Shanghai as the Mexican national, drawing criticism from Mexico that it has taken "unjustified" precautions.

Before discovering the first case, Hong Kong had signalled its preparedness to close down all schools and converted a holiday camp into a quarantine centre where possible sufferers will be sent in a bid to contain any mass outbreak.

Meanwhile Australia has also approved the isolation of suspected sufferers against their will.

The new powers have not yet been used and Health Minister Nicola Roxon stressed that they were only precautionary, but they still remain an option if needed.

"We want to make sure that all the powers are there, that we are ready to act if this takes a dramatic turn for the worse," she said this week.

Australia's pandemic action plan, a draft of which is publicly available on the Internet, reveals the government potentially has recourse to even more extreme measures should the threat escalate.

The plan, which was updated in April, allows for "extraordinary measures" including the power to manage the supply of goods and services, giving it effective control over the economy.

Roxon was unable to detail what punitive measures could be taken against people who disobey government directives but the plan talks of maintaining public trust "through visible and effective security and law enforcement".

In Singapore, changes made to the Infectious Diseases Act during the 2003 SARS outbreak allow officials to order suspected sufferers to stay at home or face a potential jail term.

Health authorities can install an electronic camera in the home of someone under quarantine and order them at random intervals to show their presence.

Failure to comply can attract a six month prison sentence for a first offence, rising to 12 months for a second.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said Singapore did not see the flu crisis as a police enforcement issue.

"No, we will not put out our police forces just to go and deal with the issue ... we have plans for the scenarios that we face but at the same time, we must also deal with issues calmly, (there's) no point panicking," she said.

Two common goals of the powers available to governments are isolating those believed to have the virus and preventing the congregation of large crowds which could help it to spread.

Japan has ordered hospitals to set up "fever rooms" and said it will ask schools to close, groups to cancel non-essential gatherings, and companies to cut back operations, reserving the right to make the measures compulsory if a major outbreak occurs.

The Australian government's term for such preventative action is "social distancing" and the pandemic action plan concedes it would have a major impact how people go about their lives.

"(It) could include considered closure of places where people gather, such as child care facilities, schools, community centres, cinemas and nightclubs; cancellation of major sporting events such as football matches; and changing public transport arrangements," the plans said.

However, Roxon conceded that preventing the swine flu virus reaching Australia may prove impossible, no matter what powers the government invoked.

"Developments overseas indicate that this flu is indeed moving fast and we are conscious that, whatever steps we take, it may not be possible to stop this disease coming into Australia," Roxon told reporters.