Complacency is the biggest threat to public health. The latest bird flu strain to affect people, H7N9, is spreading on the mainland and it is only a matter of time before there are cases in Hong Kong. That could come sooner than we think. The May 1 Labour Day holidays are looming and more than the usual number of tourists, some from affected regions, are going to make their way to our city. Authorities have stepped up precautions against the virus, but it is ultimately up to individuals to make the greatest effort.
Of all places, Hong Kong has perhaps the most experience at being prepared. As an international and regional centre for travel and trade, we are exposed to the movement of viruses into our airspace, across our borders and onto our streets. Our city is a conduit to their spread. In the past decade alone, there has been Sars, the H5N1 strain of bird flu and H1N1 swine flu.
Our government is, therefore, as prepared as can be. There is co-operation and co-ordination between our health officials and those from the mainland. With limited understanding of the source of H7N9, how it is spread and the best ways of preventing it, we have to fall back on tried and tested methods of dealing with viruses. Border checks have been stepped up, wet market inspections of poultry strengthened and a government information campaign is under way to ensure that visitors from the mainland, hotels, schools and other places where people are in close proximity are on alert. It is not a case of being alarmist - merely one of being ready.
With the virus having in mere weeks infected scores and the number of fatalities well into double digits, the toll on the mainland is considerably more than that from H5N1 at a similar stage. That has predictably led to warnings we should prepare for the unexpected. University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung is worried about a pandemic; he says H7N9 spreads from birds to humans and from place to place more easily than H5N1. A top mainland scientist, Dr Zeng Guang, has raised another concern, pointing out that 40 per cent of those testing positive had no recent contact with poultry.
Governments have to ensure they work together closely and be transparent with information. Alerts and border checks have to be strong. But citizens have the most important role to play, by staying away from domestic poultry, properly cooking chicken and, above all, using the simplest and best way to prevent infection - thoroughly washing hands.