Suen's recovered, but fear of deadly bug persists

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 December, 2011, 12:00am


Education chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung was released from hospital yesterday after a 12-day bout with legionnaires' disease.

He expects to resume work on January 9, but given the strong suspicions he caught the potentially deadly bug at the new government headquarters in Admiralty, some of the civil servants who work there are said to be terrified about returning to the Tamar office complex.

The 67-year-old, who is on kidney dialysis, announced he was 'fully recovered' as he left Queen Mary Hospital in Pok Fu Lam and said he plans to complete his term of office, which runs to June 30.

On Wednesday, health officials found traces of the legionella bacteria that causes the disease in the private washroom in Suen's office - making the site a likely source of his exposure.

Suen said he never used the shower in the washroom, but did use the basin to wash his hands after using the toilet. He could not remember if he had ever washed his face there.

The recently completed HK$5.5 billion government headquarters remains in use and the Centre for Health Protection says that for the time being it is not necessary to suspend the water supply. Some civil servants were not reassured, though.

They fear the plumbing at the complex may be contaminated.

'We are receiving a few calls from members saying they feel terrified,' said Leung Chau-ting, chairman of the Federation of Civil Service Unions. 'It feels a bit like Sars all over again. We can wear masks and wash our hands to prevent Sars - what can we do for legionnaires' disease?'

Leung said: 'More information should be disclosed so that we know which floor is contaminated, and which area is safe.'

Sars - severe acute respiratory syndrome - killed 299 people in Hong Kong in 2003.

Dr Kitty Poon Kit, undersecretary for the environment, whose office's pipes connect with Suen's, said she had faith in the government's measures.

Microbiology professor Ho Pak-leung said the disease would normally pass only from the environment - usually pipes - to people, and that sufferers could not pass it to others.

There was no need to worry too much, he said, as the disease usually infects the elderly or patients with existing health problems.

The legionella bacteria is usually found in older buildings where pipes are old. However, it was found in four samples taken from Suen's office on the 11th floor of the new complex's east wing.