Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Experiences with H1N1 in China

Chronicles of a Science Policy Intern
Shortly before starting my summer in Washington DC, I traveled to the People’s Republic of China for 2 weeks to complete a course in international entrepreneurship. All in all, it was a great trip. I learned a lot and would highly recommend a visit to China for anyone interested in learning more about this developing country.

Arriving in China by plane revealed the first of the unexpected experiences. The H1N1 virus (swine flu) is still a very real concern in China. Upon landing in Shanghai, the entire plane was considered to be “in quarantine.” Chinese health officials boarded the plane wearing complete biohazard suits including goggles and respirators. Each passenger was individually screened for fever or other signs of the H1N1 virus. The Chinese health officials walked up and down each row and took the temperature of every passenger by holding a thermal imaging scanner to our foreheads. This went one-by-one in an A330 with almost 300 people on board. Someone several rows behind me apparently did not pass the quarantine exam, because all the health officials gathered around this unfortunate soul. Soon, several seats in the near vicinity had large red stickers on them and those people didn’t get off the plane when the rest of the passengers were allowed to deplane over 60 minutes later. Luckily, no one in my group was quarantined.

While this was an interesting experience, it raised a larger question: is this really the most effective way to prevent a public health crisis? Considering the fact that there is rarely antibacterial soap in any restroom in China, hand sanitizer is not provided in public areas, and many Chinese citizens readily spit in public, I question whether the resources spent to screen an entire plane could be spent more wisely on public health initiatives to prevent the spread of disease. Before I arrived in China there had only been a few documented cases of H1N1, so apparently the Chinese method of keeping H1N1 from entering the country has been effective so far. This seemed like a “wall” approach. If the country could keep H1N1 out, there wouldn’t be a problem. But what happens if the “wall” develops a crack? Without the internal infrastructure (antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene) in place, China is taking a huge gamble with the health of its citizens. I’d argue that in addition to keeping H1N1 out of China, the government should also work to develop internal measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the event that H1N1 or a mutated form does enter the country.

I’m curious about the differences in public health initiatives between the United States, China, and the rest of the world. What experiences with public health and H1N1 have you had? Does anyone have experiences with the public health responses of other countries to H1N1?


  1. Thinking about the way China has dealt with H1N1 and what happened in the past with H5N1 Avian flu, how much do you think perception is driving the wall approach?

    They worked very hard to suppress any information about what was a very serious outbreak of H5N1, so I'm wondering if some of their actions (thermal imaging heads and quarantining students) are meant SHOW how strongly they're responding more then they to actually construct a strong response.


  2. As compared to the rest of the world, these precautions may seem extreme. In my opinion, though, being on the cautious side of things is a good idea. China has certainly learned its lessons from SARS.