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Jeremy Laurance: For your health’s sake, kiss someone with swine flu today

Medical life

I am sorry to have missed the best and longest party of last week. Guests at the Metropark Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, were carousing for seven days courtesy of management who supplied unlimited food and drink, after the Chinese authorities slapped a quarantine order on them when one of their number went down with swine flu – the first case in Asia.

The hapless victim was carted off to hospital, where he can’t have had half as much fun as those he was suspected of infecting. The YouTube film is comical, with guests laughing and dancing and passing bottles of wine while staff clad in blue face masks look gloomily on. According to the South China Morning Post, at least two romantic liaisons blossomed during the party, as well as other unexpectedly long-term relationships – including that between a prostitute and her client who found themselves sharing a room for a week rather than the usual hour after the prostitute was forbidden to leave the hotel and the hotel refused to give her separate accommodation.

But if the guests enjoyed themselves, I bet the hotel’s owners weren’t having such a great time. I happen to know the Metropark Hotel because I stayed there in March 2003 when, under its former name of the Metropole Hotel, it became notorious as Ground Zero for the global spread of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

On that occasion, a Chinese professor of respiratory medicine, who had been infected with Sars after treating patients in Guangzhou, which is a two-hour train ride from Hong Kong, unfortunately passed the virus to seven other residents in the hotel when he coughed or sneezed in the lift lobby. Within days, the professor was dead, and the infection had been spread to four cities around the world, triggering a global panic.

By the time I got there, a week after the 487-room hotel was identified as the source of the outbreak, it was almost deserted – despite offering guests a 30 per cent discount on the usual room rate. The ninth floor, where the professor stayed in Room 911, a biological “hot zone”, had been temporarily closed.

Today, if you look for Room 911, you will not find it. About a year after the outbreak the hotel changed its number to 913, and altered all other odd-numbered rooms on the ninth floor accordingly. Sars infected more than 8,000 people round the world and caused more than 900 deaths, all of which the World Health Organisation believes can be traced back to that one sneeze in the Metropole.

Will the hotel now have to do the same for the room where the guest with swine flu stayed? The Metropark Hotel’s management must be wondering what they have done to displease the gods. But whoever makes the hotel’s brass door number plates will be blessing his luck.

Official advice is to avoid anyone with swine flu. But if you want protection against a virus that could return in a much nastier form next winter, the best thing you can do is catch it now. Go on, kiss someone with flu today.