Lessons of Sars must never be forgotten

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 February, 2008, 12:00am

Where Sars came from and where it has gone remains a mystery, even though five years have passed and a great deal of research has been carried out. Lessons have been learned from the terrible outbreak in 2003. But the true test will come when a similar virus strikes, as it inevitably will. Whether Sars will re-emerge is debatable, but there is no doubt that at some point another deadly infectious disease will hit Hong Kong.

The H5N1 virus, commonly known as bird flu, is already testing our defences. Tipped to be the cause of the next global pandemic, it has already caused three deaths in mainland China this year, the latest this week in northern Guangdong.

Preparedness is our best defence. The barriers have been put in place and through keeping them strong, we can at least be ready.

Though Hong Kong had been at the heart of global flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968 and was the first place where bird flu killed people, Sars taught us some hard lessons. Five years ago this week, with reports having swirled for weeks of a mystery illness causing deaths in Guangdong, our defences remained low.

On March 4, 2003, came the first death in Hong Kong from the then unnamed illness. Within a week, medical staff at ward 8A at Prince of Wales Hospital were stricken and on March 15, the World Health Organisation put out a travel alert in relation to the virus it had christened severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Three months of infections, quarantines, deaths and rushed-through policies followed. We learned what it was like to live in fear. Hong Kong became a ghost town; the economy faltered. Tourists stayed away. In the age of globalised travel, Sars spread like lightning. Even though the virus came from the mainland, Hong Kong - as an international crossroads - gained a reputation as the source and a place to be avoided.

Governments, our own included, made mistakes. Officials found at fault were forced to resign. Sars was also among the factors which contributed to the downfall of Hong Kong's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

On the mainland, where official secrecy had led to denials about the scale of the Sars outbreak there - something the rest of the world condemned - the response had to be far-reaching. Health minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong were sacked on April 20. The mainland's public health system has been revamped and the health ministry is now aware of the need for transparency. All branches of government have altered dramatically the manner in which they share information and the degree of openness is gradually improving.

Hong Kong is better prepared. Procedures have been streamlined. Public places are cleaner and hygiene better. Co-operation with the mainland has improved.

Sars seems a long time ago. Economies are booming and the tourists have returned. Yet there is no guarantee that Sars has gone for good; it may simply have gone into the animal kingdom, only to re-emerge. Bird flu is ever-present.

We cannot afford to be complacent. Health systems have to be kept robust, surveillance maintained and communications channels between governments kept open. Transparency is essential.

The next infectious disease outbreak is not a case of if, but when. Sars taught us important lessons - ones that, for our sake and those of our children, we have to remember.