Health crisis law should be used with care

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 December, 2007, 12:00am

In an age of international travel and globalised commerce, a day is all it takes to spread a deadly disease around the world. What makes this situation more dangerous is that old diseases such as tuberculosis have returned in new, drug-resistant strains. At the same time, new ones, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, have emerged to pose serious threats to health systems everywhere. Bird flu remains a threat. Proposed legislation announced yesterday will go some way towards helping deal effectively with an outbreak. But it is vital that the powers to be given to authorities are used with great care - and respect for human rights.

The outbreak of Sars in 2003 exposed cracks and weaknesses in health services even in advanced economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Toronto. It laid bare the woeful inadequacies in cross-border communication between authorities in Hong Kong and Guangdong, where the disease was first reported. Lessons have been learned, primarily that nowhere is the motto 'act locally, think globally' more appropriate than in international efforts to contain the spread of a deadly virus. This means local health authorities must be ready to act quickly when the first danger signs appear. They must share real-time information with their international counterparts to enforce surveillance, containment and identification of a disease. This, however, may be a tall order for many developing countries. Indonesia has been reluctant to share samples from its deadly bird flu. Guangdong was slow to alert the world about Sars.

It was in response to these lessons that the World Health Organisation adopted in 2005 a new global health emergency regime. Under it, member states are obliged to enact locally appropriate measures and share information expeditiously. Beijing and Hong Kong have now moved to introduce new regulations that should strengthen the ability of health officials to deal with crises.

In Hong Kong, ad hoc administrative measures, adopted during Sars, will be codified into the new Prevention and Control of Disease Bill. This was a key recommendation made by the Sars panel of experts in the aftermath of the outbreak. The new bill gives extraordinary powers to authorised medical officers to check, isolate and quarantine people and materials deemed a potential threat once a health emergency has been declared. Authorities will have powers to requisition property and materials, including drugs and vaccines belonging to private companies. In light of these powers, there is a need to safeguard human rights and private property. A health crisis may justify a temporary suspension of some legal rights, but it must be declared on solid medical grounds to prevent abuses. The new bill stipulates that fair and adequate compensation must be provided if property is taken over, and a declared health emergency must not last longer than necessary. Health authorities must heed these requirements and ensure that the legislation is implemented with the utmost care.

Hong Kong is in better shape today to deal with a new outbreak than it was on the eve of Sars. The Centre for Health Protection is the first centralised medical body of its kind in Hong Kong to monitor and contain the spread of diseases. But it has yet to face a serious health crisis, so its capability remains untested. Our readiness may be comparable with that of any developed country. Given our painful experiences with bird flu and Sars, we should be setting standards for the rest of the world to follow. But in the end, diseases know no borders. Global efforts are required involving every local authority in the vigilant fight against emerging 21st century plagues.