H7N9: Don't let your guard down yet

Updated: 2017-02-17 09:30

(HK Edition)

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The government held an interdepartmental meeting on Thursday to discuss measures to deal with the increased risk of avian influenza infection. The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said a record 364 people have been infected with H7N9 globally during the peak flu season so far, mostly on the mainland, and it is very concerned about the situation. Because Hong Kong imports more live poultry from the mainland than from any other source, health authorities have suspended live chicken shipments from several mainland suppliers and overseas sources this winter to prevent possible spread of bird flu here.

This is the fifth wave of H7N9 infections since the strain first appeared in 2013. CHP Controller Wong Ka-hing said on Thursday the rise in the numbers in human cases had already surpassed all the previous years, including the highest number in the second wave. All strains of bird flu virus survive longer in cooler temperatures, which is why such infections always peak in winter. This means people who visit the mainland in the coming weeks should take all precautionary measures, particularly if their destinations have reported H7N9 infection cases recently.

People may assume Hong Kong is normally too warm for the avian flu virus and this winter has been warmer than most in recent memory. That may be true but it is not a reason to let our guard down, because human infections have happened here. Do not go to live poultry markets unless you have to, and watch out for health-related notifications in addition to maintaining all personal hygiene measures such as thoroughly cleaning your hands with disinfectant soap or gel after visiting wet markets and before having meals in public facilities.

It is best Hong Kong residents avoid going to places that are on high alert right now. If you need to receive visitors from those areas at this time of year, make sure they are not running a fever or showing other flu symptoms. If they are, take them to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. Even if you are not going to the high-alert regions in the near future, you can never be too careful about hygiene. If you see a dead bird on the ground, don't touch it, but alert the CHP immediately if you can.

Vaccination is so far the most effective way to prevent viral pandemics, but developing avian flu vaccines takes time and there is no sure date for when we will get effective H7N9 vaccines. That is why the government and live poultry suppliers need to reach a consensus on central slaughtering sooner rather than later, in the best interests of Hong Kong society.

(HK Edition 02/17/2017 page1)