H5N1 virus

Our vigilance is the best guard against flu

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 April, 2008, 12:00am


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Hong Kong people can breathe a sigh of relief. There was no superbug after all. The common influenza strains have not mutated in a dangerous direction. This, reassuringly, is the conclusion of a panel of experts who released their findings yesterday. Last month, parents and school officials were alarmed by reports three children with flu symptoms had died. Several schools reported mass flu outbreaks and decided to close early for the Easter holiday.

People were afraid a new killer flu had emerged. As a result, the government felt it necessary to close all primary schools and kindergartens. As it turns out, the flu season that is ending is no different from previous ones, according to the experts. But the false alarm has exposed gaps in our public health system. The expert panel, as well as investigating the deaths of the children, has also looked into these issues and produced a list of timely recommendations to rectify them. The crisis last month has, therefore, provided a valuable opportunity to call attention to matters which might otherwise have escaped attention and fallen under the radar of health officials. If lessons can be learned, lives may be saved and the city may be much better prepared to deal with a real outbreak.

In a city that has lived through bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome, it is understandable that people are easily alarmed about outbreaks of respiratory disease. This is a rational fear. It is also why officials and experts have been studying whether it is feasible to provide free flu vaccinations for all children under 12. An important finding by the expert panel will provide another strong reason to introduce such a system.

Even though the common flu strains have not mutated in significant ways, they have undergone genetic changes. This, according to scientists, is enough to lower the immunity of young children and elderly people. Annual childhood flu vaccinations are recommended only for children up to two years old and for the elderly. Mass vaccination of older children will block this route of contagion and create a degree of herd immunity. This works in a similar way to closing schools to stop the cycle of infection. Even if the government is not ready to provide free flu vaccinations for all children, it should, at least, recommend parents pay for flu shots to children beyond the age of two.

Last month school officials complained about having to make closure decisions on the fly. Without setting down hard and fast rules, the panel has provided useful guidelines about how many children need to have fallen ill, been admitted to hospital or died for alarms to be raised and schools closed. There should, however, be some flexibility. The panel says lessons can also be learned from the death of seven-year-old Law Ho-ming. His parents took him to see different doctors before he was finally admitted to hospital. Different doctors, therefore, prescribed multiple drugs which might have worsened his condition. The panel now warns doctors not only to avoid overprescribing drugs but also to interpret repeat visits to doctors as signs of an underlying threatening condition which may require hospital treatment.

The crisis last month threw up valuable lessons. The panel has made formal recommendations to health authorities. They are sensible and practical. If they are implemented, the risks of an outbreak will be lowered considerably. But for them to be effective, we must all stay vigilant.