Timely disclosure vital in disease fight

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 May, 2008, 12:00am

When the mainland sneezes, Hong Kong catches a cold. This is why outbreaks of hand, foot and mouth disease reported across several provinces have caused alarm among parents and officials here. The number of mainland children confirmed to have died has risen to 28, and the number of people infected has risen dramatically to 15,799. Most of the fatalities involved enterovirus 71, or EV71, the most dangerous of several viruses that can cause the disease. Fortunately, most other cases on the mainland are not caused by this virus and are unlikely to prove fatal.

As a precaution, the Centre for Health Protection has stepped up surveillance of the virus in Hong Kong. All private and public medical facilities will now have to report cases involving EV71. This is a sensible move in light of recent developments. The number of EV71 cases - at 13 - has already surpassed last year's total of 12. And the peak season - the summer - is just ahead. Eight of the Hong Kong EV71 patients caught it during trips they made to the mainland. Thankfully, there has been no fatality.

Similar to the flu outbreak in March, schools have been advised to close for two weeks if they have experienced a hand, foot and mouth outbreak or have children who suffer from complications associated with EV71. The virus often strikes children, whose immune systems are still developing.

Unfortunately, local measures alone cannot stop the spread of the disease on the mainland, with the risk that brings for Hong Kong. Only early warnings, timely intervention and containment can have any hope of stopping a contagious disease in its tracks. Allegations that city officials in Fuyang , Anhui province - where the first EV71 outbreak occurred as early as mid-March - covered it up for a month do not inspire confidence. During this time, the disease has spread to other provinces.

Despite directives from the central government, it seems there are still city and provincial officials who choose to hide essential health information or delay its release. Timely disclosure is essential to guard against the threat from infectious diseases.