Slow off the mark

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 12:00am


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The first time the H5N1 virus migrated into the human population in Hong Kong, the authorities were completely unprepared and chaos ensued. It seemed a catastrophe at the time, but it was an unprecedented event and mistakes were excusable. With hindsight it emerges that the Government in fact acted wisely by ordering the slaughter of all chickens. Yet a measure of panic among the public was inevitable.

The positive effect of the drama was to give the new administration a valuable lesson in crisis management. Officials have been on the lookout for a recurrence ever since. But yesterday's response appears not to have been as instant as it should have been. However, culling 5,000 birds will, hopefully, prevent the spread of the disease and avert a potential crisis.

This time the virus is one so far confined to the bird population. But there can be no complacency. H5N1 has demonstrated its ability to mutate, and, if one variety can do that, so can another. When so many chickens began to die, officials should have closed markets as a precaution immediately, even before the virus was identified. Some shoppers may have bought affected birds, and that should not have happened.

World health experts who study the global spread of the influenza virus believe the next flu pandemic will start in this region. But since we have the experience and expertise to cope with mutant strains that incubate in the bird population, the danger should not be cause for undue alarm. But failure to close affected markets after the discovery of sick birds shows that there is still room for improvement.

However, diagnosis takes time, and panic reactions can be equally counter-productive. The British Government's tardiness in dealing with foot and mouth disease, and its subsequent panic as it spread, is a classic reminder of the horrors that ensue through incompetence and delay.

This bird flu episode is trivial compared with the scale of that disaster; but it is potentially far more dangerous because the potential for a human pandemic always lurks. With that in mind, it would have been wiser to have erred on the side of caution.