We mustn't drop our guard against swine flu

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 June, 2009, 12:00am

Iam glad that our government has successfully defused, at least for the moment, the crisis of disciplined services taking to the streets. However, there is a crisis of another kind still hanging over us - the A(H1N1) swine flu pandemic.

The World Health Organisation has raised its worldwide alert to the highest level and, in Hong Kong, the virus is clearly spreading in the community.

But unlike severe acute respiratory syndrome, or even the H5N1 avian flu, there is no emergency in the air. This somewhat lacklustre reaction is understandable as we now know that this new A(H1N1) virus is not much more fatal than ordinary flu.

But, because of this, there are plenty of carriers of the virus among us who are not showing any symptoms.

In other words, the virus is now rapidly reshuffling genes among the human and pig populations in different places around the world. The outcome, many generations down the road, is anyone's guess.

In the case of H5N1, that virus seems to be getting much milder and that is why we have not seen its recurrence. But if the genetic reshuffling were to result in some more fatal strains, we would be in very deep trouble.

Facing such scenarios, many of the measures now undertaken worldwide, as well as in Hong Kong, seem irrelevant.

Stocking up on Tamiflu, for example, is not a very good strategy since, if the new strains die down, the chances are that this batch would pass its expiry dates and become useless. And, should the strain become more virulent, Tamiflu may not be effective.

In either case, it is a waste of public money and only benefits pharmaceutical companies. Quarantine has proved to be too much of a hassle, and we have already abandoned it for the most part.

This time, the Americans may be right. It is now too late to try to stop the spread of the virus and the accompanying gene reshuffling. Our new lines of defence should be built around vigilance, as well as public hygiene.

We can, to a large extent, forget about the original A(H1N1) virus, because it is now too late to do anything about it, and because it is not fatal in 99.6 per cent of cases, anyway.

The objectives of constant vigilance are to monitor the genetic development of the virus and to stop new, more fatal variants from spreading, as well as to quickly develop drugs and vaccines against them.

This is the real enemy that we should concentrate our efforts on eradicating and, if we do it right, we still have the ability to succeed.

To help fight a possible new H1N1 virus, we should - just like in wartime - raise the level of alert against our enemies. This is where heightened public hygiene comes in.

Following Sars, Hong Kong citizens acquired the habits of wearing masks, washing their hands and using separate chopsticks. Such habits are now being reinforced. But, after a while, a 'cry wolf' mentality may prevail, and we will soon forget about such good habits.

Always keeping people on their toes is very difficult, and it is also unnecessary.

Our government should clearly explain the situation and its strategy to the public, keep disseminating information quickly, and devise an appropriate alert system, then enforce it.

For example, wearing masks in public areas may not be necessary at this stage, and it can be unbearable during hot summer days, so we should drop the idea.

But the habit of frequently washing our hands and immediately taking a shower and changing all our clothing after coming home should still be encouraged at all times.

Meanwhile, the city should be thoroughly cleaned up, and kept clean. This way, come what may, we will be prepared.

Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development