Killer 'Fujian' flu has now reached HK, experts warn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2003, 12:00am

It has left five children dead in Britain and might trigger a Christmas outbreak

A new flu strain that has killed at least five children in Britain since last month has spread from Europe and North America to Hong Kong and could trigger an outbreak this winter, a government doctor warned yesterday.

A virologist at the University of Hong Kong said there was a danger the virus could strike hard because it was new to humans.

Department of Health consultant Thomas Tsang Ho-fai warned that the 'Fujian-like' strain of influenza A could affect large numbers of people in Hong Kong between January and March, the usual peak flu season.

However, he said that an outbreak might be triggered next month as people fly into Hong Kong ahead of the Christmas holiday.

'Influenza outbreaks usually start in North America and Europe in November and December. Then the virus would sweep from north to south through China before it arrives at Hong Kong. That is the pattern we have seen from the past,' Dr Tsang said.

He said the government laboratory had isolated the new virus strain in specimens collected from the community. But he could not say how many people in Hong Kong already had the Fujian-like flu.

According to Dr Tsang, the new strain is believed to be a mutation of the common Panama strain of influenza, which has spread across the world in the past three years.

Scientists believe that at least 70 per cent of people who have contracted the Panama strain will be immune to the Fujian strain, Dr Tsang said.

The Hospital Authority and the Department of Health launched free flu vaccination programmes three weeks ago for 119,000 people, including 59,000 residents of homes for the elderly and 10,000 disabled people. The vaccine offers protection against a combination of flu strains.

Dr Tsang said a vaccine for the Fujian strain had not been developed, and existing vaccines might provide only limited protection against the new strain.

Virologist Malik Peiris, of the University of Hong Kong, said the Fujian strain could strike Hong Kong hard because the virus was new to humans and the community had not developed immunity against it.

'There was no big change [in the influenza virus] in the past two or three years. But in order to survive, the virus has to mutate. So the influenza outbreak this year may be more extensive than in previous years. It is not something unexpected,' Professor Peiris said.

He said people should not underestimate the flu's threat to health.

The flu usually causes only minor symptoms, including fever, body ache, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat and nasal congestion.

However, Professor Peiris warned that the flu could increase the risk of developing complications such as pneumonia in elderly people and chronic patients with a history of cardiovascular or pulmonary disease.

It has been confirmed that the Fujian virus has killed five children - two in England and three in Scotland.