No pandemic, but no cause for complacency

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 May, 2009, 12:00am

Only a day after outlining a new strategy for combating swine flu, the government has confirmed our city's second imported case of the virus. Fortunately, the circumstances of the case suggest it will not pose too severe a test of the new plan.

The patient, a young local man returning from the United States, sought medical treatment at the airport and was isolated before entering the wider community. His contact with other people in Hong Kong has, therefore, been limited. For that we can be thankful. It is good that he made his condition known so soon after his arrival back in Hong Kong and took the precaution of wearing a mask during the flight. But the case does raise some concerns. This passenger had stated on his health declaration form for entry to Hong Kong that he was suffering from a cough. Under official guidelines, he should have been stopped and examined. But this did not happen and he was allowed to go on his way. He could easily have disappeared into the community.

The case shows how difficult it is for officials at the airport to screen everyone coming in with symptoms. The passenger did not have a high temperature, so passed that check, too. It is likely there will be other swine flu sufferers entering Hong Kong.

This is why efforts to contain the virus are so important. Given that both the people infected in Hong Kong flew to the city from North America, it is reasonable for Secretary for Food and Health York Chow Yat-ngok to have written to his American counterpart urging consideration of stringent exit health-screening. On top of heavy-handed US airport security, that would be a bane for travellers, but one worth bearing for the sake of containing the virus. It is understandable, however, that passengers will worry about their tickets and other arrangements should they be found with symptoms and barred from taking a flight. In such circumstances, airlines and officials should be flexible in helping passengers defer their journeys so they can receive treatment before travelling.

The strategy revealed by the government on Tuesday suggests a rethink since guests and staff were quarantined in the Metropark Hotel in Wan Chai for a week - a move seen by some as an overreaction. Sensibly, the new arrangements focus more on those who have been in close contact with infected people. It remains to be seen whether the right balance is struck when they are implemented.

Most cases overseas have proved milder than feared, with few deaths. Our experts have found no worrying signs of changes in samples of the virus tested here. It is spread by respiratory droplets and, unlike Sars, not by infected bodily secretions and blood. But there remains great uncertainty, and fears that the virus will mutate and return later this year in a more virulent form. There is confidence that by then, there will be a vaccine, but not that there will be enough to meet demand in a pandemic.

It is therefore important that the world, which is already showing signs of 'pandemic fatigue,' does not drop its guard. Our city's experience with bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome shows the danger of allowing complacency to creep in.