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Taking temperature of the flu outbreak

By: Robert Grace

May 25, 2009

Memo to North American plastics industry executives and event organizers: You don't have to get ill to feel the effects of the H1N1 flu virus. Unless you have traveled to Asia in the past month, it would be difficult to fully comprehend the impressions that many abroad have of the United States being an “epidemic zone” of the so-called swine flu.

I got my first taste of it when, on my way to the Chinaplas 2009 trade show in Guangzhou, China, I touched down at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport May 14 on a Continental Airlines flight from Newark, N.J. Passengers on our flight were advised after we landed that as a purely precautionary measure Chinese health authorities would be taking everyone's temperature, to try to identify anyone on board who might have an unusually high fever, one symptom of the flu. I expected we would deplane and walk past some sort of thermographic camera that provided instant body-temperature readings.

Instead, six individuals boarded the parked plane, dressed in white protective gear from head to toe, including booties, masks and goggles, carrying hand-held, heat-reading cameras. One would have thought we were survivors from the Three Mile Island fallout zone. It took more than half an hour for these individuals — one couldn't tell if they were men or women — to point their thermal cameras, which looked eerily like guns, at each passenger's forehead from about a foot away and pull the trigger. When done, they all eventually left and we were allowed to deplane, past airport personnel wearing face masks in the terminal.

Once at Chinaplas, which opened May 18, everyone entering the expo complex needed to pass through security gateways, as always, but this time each channel included some mask-wearing person pointing an infrared thermometer gun at your neck as you passed through, again checking that you did not have an elevated body temperature. Inside, some workers and visitors wore protective face masks as they moved about through the show halls.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with the precautions being taken by the Chinese government, especially when one considers the country suffered an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003 that killed more than 600 people. The Beijing authorities at that time were stung by accusations of taking tardy, inadequate preventive actions. (See Nina Ying Sun's April 30 China Blog posting titled “My memory of SARS.”)

China confirmed its first case of swine flu May 11, in a 30-year-old Chinese student who had returned from the United States. Confirmed swine flu cases on May 20 surpassed 10,000 in 40 countries, with cases in the U.S. accounting for more than 5,400 of those reported cases. Still, having been in the States just a week before, what surprised me most were the impressions of some that the United States was simply an unsafe place to be.

Despite the concerns, Chinaplas itself did not seem to suffer any perceptible ill effects from the flu. The show's organizer, Adsale Ex-

hibition Services Ltd., reported more than 49,000 unique visitors to the show during its first two days, on track to hit its goal of 70,000 during its four-day run.

Agence France-Presse reported, meanwhile that Japan confirmed dozens more swine flu cases on May 19, bringing its tally to 176. The high population density in places such as China and Japan offers conditions conducive to the rapid spread of such diseases. This helps to explain the focus such countries place on prevention.

Those living blissfully in the U.S., thinking the media are blowing concerns about a possible global pandemic way out of proportion, should come to Asia for a few days. One needs to be sensitive to global perceptions, and understand how precautionary restrictions, or simply fear, could impact your company's overseas business activities or planned travel by you, your customers or vendors. Communicate clearly and often with your employees and business partners — and don't forget to wash your hands!