Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses which are known to cause illness in humans and animals. As of 28 September 2012, scientists confirmed two cases of a never-seen-before strain of the virus, a 60-year-old Saudi Arabian man who died in June 2012, and a Qatari man, 49, with travel history to Saudi Arabia. Their symptoms included acute, serious respiratory illness presented with fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. The novel coronavirus is genetically quite distinct from SARS. There has been no evidence to date that the novel coronavirus has been transmitted from person to person.
Hong Kong must keep up constant vigilance against deadly viruses
Thankfully, Hong Kong's first suspected case of a deadly new Sars-like virus is a false alarm. The Centre for Health Protection confirmed a four-year old Saudi Arabian boy had suffered only from a common type of influenza. However, the negative test result for the novel coronavirus does not mean we can drop our guard. That our city is a top destination for travel and business means we are always vulnerable to infection. The relief should not give way to complacency.
The disease has so far only killed a 60-year-old man in the Middle East and infected a 49-year-old Qatari man, who survived. There is no evidence of person-to-person transmission. However low the perceived threat is, a false sense of security is the last thing we want in the fight against potentially fatal diseases. The World Health Organisation rightly put out a global alert as early as possible.
Hong Kong has no shortage of experience in dealing with deadly viruses. The bird flu outbreak in 1997 prompted the government to put in place a comprehensive protective mechanism. But that does not prevent isolated cases from happening again. It shows that even the most elaborate defence system is not perfect.
Some lessons have been learned the hard way. For instance, the outbreak of Sars in 2003 is a painful one that should never be forgotten. The lack of knowledge and experience in dealing with the virus was seen as contributing to the death toll of 299. Since then, the government has been on full alert to infectious diseases, so much so that it has been criticised as over-reacting sometimes. A case in point was the move to quarantine hundreds of guests at a Wan Chai hotel after a Mexican visitor came down with human swine flu in 2009. The virus was later found to be not as serious as thought.
Infectious diseases are not to be taken lightly, especially when the virus is newly identified. Our city remains exposed to such risk due to our position as a transport and business hub. Constant vigilance is needed to keep us safe.