Co-operation vital in disease fight

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2003, 12:00am

In the modern era, we pride ourselves for having vanquished a host of diseases and maladies that plagued our more ignorant forbearers for centuries. But our primal fear of sudden physical ailment remains, as do the silent killers that still hunt us down in our unsuspecting moments. In our eternal battle against the ever-changing cocktail of deadly germs and viruses, constant vigilance to prevent new epidemics is our best defence. But should that first line be breached, the next best response is to calmly devise a rapid containment strategy with all concerned parties to neutralise the enemy before it inflicts too much damage.

In recent weeks, Hong Kong has had a succession of unpleasant reminders that this city of hyper-modernity may be under attack from a fast-moving enemy of the simplest origin. The latest incident involves an outbreak of what health officials are calling atypical pneumonia that has infected dozens of health-care workers at at least four hospitals.

Even more troubling was the case of an American-Chinese who died at Princess Margaret Hospital yesterday morning. The travelling businessman from Shanghai had been transferred to Hong Kong for treatment from Vietnam, where he was suspected to have passed on the virus to more than 20 hospital workers in Hanoi.

The Hong Kong public is still jittery over a similar outbreak of severe respiratory illness in Guangdong last month. That epidemic afflicted more than 300 people and killed five, triggering a general panic on both sides of the border. With the latest news, people are left wondering if a much more serious, region-wide epidemic is spreading among them. Indeed, suspecting a possible link in the Hong Kong, Guangdong and Vietnam cases, the World Health Organisation yesterday (WHO) issued a global pneumonia alert. For now, no such linkage has been proved, and our health authorities reassure us that the outbreak here is confined to medical staff at hospitals. While we are all anxious to know more - and officials have a fundamental duty to keep the public well informed in matters affecting their health - people must refrain from spreading rumours and hearsay that could set off another unwarranted panic. Wrong information is worse than no information.

But what is clear is that viruses know no borders and spread much more easily today with the explosion in international travel. As a result, no successful containment strategy is possible without closer co-operation among various health authorities of the affected countries. Unfortunately, this is not something that inspires a lot of confidence.

Last month, some members of a Hong Kong family who had travelled to a remote part of Fujian were found to have contracted the H5N1 bird flu virus. But health officials on the mainland flatly denied it had bird flu, even though tests conducted in Hong Kong suggested that the father, who died here, and his son, who recovered, both had become infected during their sojourn in the north.

To date, WHO is still pressing the mainland health authorities to pass on more information on the pneumonia outbreak in Guangdong. We do not know if the mainland authorities are unable to do so because they do not have the infrastructure to collect it, or because they do not want to release it for fear of causing a panic. Either way, they would be wrong to think that they could ride out a possible epidemic by sitting back. Tens of thousands people are on the move in these days of jet-set travel. Regional co-operation is critical in nipping any contagious diseases in the bud.