Chinese officials quarantine Canadian university students

Twenty-five Canadian students quarantined in China amid fears about the potential spread of swine flu are staying in a remote lakeside hotel and are "in good spirits" despite the setback, university officials in Montreal told CBC News.
Twenty-five University of Montreal students have been quarantined in China as a preventative measure against swine flu. ((CBC))
Twenty-five Canadian students quarantined in China amid fears about the potential spread of swine flu are staying in a remote lakeside hotel and are "in good spirits" despite the setback, university officials in Montreal told CBC News.

The University of Montreal students — who travelled to the densely populated country last week to learn Chinese — have access to the internet and are being monitored by health officials who are taking their temperature four times a day, said David Ownby, director of the East Asia Studies Department at the university.

The students were taken aback by the unexpected seven-day quarantine, but it's a question of timing given global concerns over the spread of swine flu, Ownby said Monday.

"There was no warning, because the word came down from authorities in Beijing the morning of the 2nd [of May] to the provinces, to the health ministry, saying we have to be very careful not to let this become like the bird flu," he said.

"It wasn't like the word came down, let's get Canadians. It was the timing that we were the first non-Mexican group to fall under the new regulations, at least in this region."

Ownby hasn't yet talked to the students but is in contact with the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, "saying, if they're not sick, maybe let's get them out a little earlier."

The students can leave the hotel to "stretch their legs," he said. "They're given very good food, their spirits are very good."

"It's a big machine, China," Ownby continued. "You know, it's hard to make a provincial bureaucracy turn against a ruling that comes down from the centre."

The Canadian consulate in China has contacted the students and offered services, said Alain Cacchione, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

"We have also contacted local Chinese authorities and requested clarifications regarding this quarantine," he said in an email to CBC News.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said Canadian consular officials are in contact with the quarantined students and local Chinese officials. Canadian officials were to travel to China on Tuesday, she said.

Students singled out on the weekend

Chinese officials in Changchun pulled the group aside after their plane landed in the northeastern city on Saturday, according to Martin Deslauriers, a Quebecer who is part of the language exchange group.

An official came on board and asked all the Canadian passengers to present themselves, Deslauriers said.

Health officials then took them to a room at the airport to have their temperatures taken, he said. No one in his group had a fever, but they were still informed they would be placed in quarantine, he said. 

I think it's more of an adventure than a disaster.'

"At first we didn't think it was going to be for seven days and we were finding it very funny. Now it's a bit less funny," Deslauriers said. 

They were first taken to a dormitory at a local university for the seven-day quarantine but were moved to the hotel in the Changchun region, where they are the only guests, he said.

The group has been told they aren't allowed to leave the facility and meals are being provided, Deslauriers said.

Language lessons may start during the quarantine, the centre's director said.

The students are eventually heading to the Northeast China Normal University.

Quarantine appears inevitable

Everyone is being very co-operative and officials dealing with the Canadians are helpful, but there is a feeling that the students were selected for quarantine simply because they were from North America, Deslauriers said.

Staff at the hotel doesn't appear to be under quarantine and are allowed to come and go, he said.

The students must undergo medical examinations each day of the quarantine, he said, which will last five more days.

Deslauriers said the students have been told by officials that the quarantine is a provincial measure and not part of a national plan by the Chinese government.

Quarantine legitimate: WHO

Hans Troeddson, a World Health Organization official in China, told CBC News that although the quarantines are inconvenient for travellers, China is not doing anything wrong.

It is up to each country to determine how it attempts to control the outbreak of the disease, Troeddson said. What China has done so far is in accordance with its policies, he said.

"It's really up to each country and should be in accordance with their own regulations and legislation on public health and protection of the population."

China's size and population density mean a swine flu outbreak could be catastrophic, he said.

A Mexican traveller, who was diagnosed in Hong Kong with swine flu last week, was the first confirmed case of the virus in Asia. Another case has since been confirmed in South Korea.

The detection of the virus has prompted China to ban imports of pork from Mexico, some U.S. states and Alberta, and to cancel direct flights with Mexico.

Health officials have also quarantined more than 70 Mexican travellers, even though none are suffering from the H1N1 virus.

China has also tracked down and quarantined passengers who were on the same flight as the Mexican traveller diagnosed with the virus in Hong Kong. None have shown symptoms of the virus, the Health Ministry said.

The hotel in downtown Hong Kong where the sick passenger stayed has quarantined its guests and staff for one week.

With files from The Associated Press