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17/02/17: No time to play chicken with killer flu

The bird flu outbreak in the mainland is acute, posing a serious health threat to us in the SAR.

Four Hongkongers have been infected so far, and two have died. All of them reportedly visited mainland wet markets.

Although the situation here is under control, it’s paramount for the public and health authorities to remain highly vigilant.

Hong Kong is fully aware of the havoc invisible killers can wreak. In 1997, ours was the world’s first city to be hit hard by bird flu, after the H5N1 virus was initially detected in Guangdong. In 2003, we paid a heavy price for the SARS epidemic.

We’ve learned from past experience that an ability to respond quickly is the key to pre-empting a health threat.

The latest outbreak of the H7N9 strain in the mainland is the fifth eruption since 2013, and the worst to date. Since October, at least 364 mainlanders have been infected, with the situations in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui and Guangdong said to be particularly acute.

The death rate from the current wave has been consistently high. Across the nation in January, about 40 percent of those who were infected have died.

In Anhui, authorities said 20 of the 40 patients treated up to now have died.

In Guangdong, 21 human infection cases have been reported – five in Guangzhou, five in Foshan, two in Shenzhen, and the rest in Shaoguan, Meizhou, Dongguan and Zhongshan – all places popular with people from Hong Kong.

The 21 cases resulted in 10 deaths.

Of late, the outbreak is reported to be spreading to Beijing and Sichuan.

Mainland media said about 10 percent of the samples collected from markets in Guangzhou, and 15 percent in Jiangsu, tested positive for the bird flu virus – levels that meant those inside the markets had a high probability of being exposed to the virus.

Admittedly, the best safeguard that Hong Kong can expect is for the mainland to control the disease. However, we all have a fair idea of how opaque mainland authorities can be.

Are the figures published so far an accurate reflection of the situation?

Mainland authorities are undoubtedly more willing to share their information with Hong Kong than they had been during the 2003 SARS epidemic, when local health officials were kept in dark over the outbreak of the killer disease in Guangdong.

To help the SAR protect its people from another outbreak of bird flu, it will be essential for mainland officials to share up-to-date intelligence with their counterparts here in a timely manner.

The steps announced by the Center for Health Protection to introduce new rapid tests on live poultry in wet markets, and step up checks on local poultry farms and markets, are only some of the standard responses of the contingency plan that will help build a defensive line between us and the dreaded disease.

In addition to vigilance, it may be necessary to revisit the unpopular option of central slaughtering of poultry in the long term as the ultimate safeguard.

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