Ever since the H7N9 flu virus hit the region in March, the risk of human infection in Hong Kong has inevitably increased. Despite an array of precautionary measures put in place, it was only a matter of time before the bird flu reached our doorstep. Our line of defence was finally broken on Monday when an Indonesian domestic helper was confirmed to be infected with the flu strain. That it took months for the first case to emerge proves that our guard has been effective. But it also shows that more needs to be done to stave off the spread of the virus.
The authorities believe the case was imported from Shenzhen, after the 36-year-old live-in helper slaughtered and cooked a chicken for the family when travelling with them. Last night she was still in critical condition, supported by an artificial lung in Queen Mary Hospital. She is the only patient confirmed to have contracted H7N9 after a third test, following two that proved negative. The authorities said yesterday that those who had been in close contact with the helper had tested negative.
The right sense of urgency can be found in the swift decision by the government to activate the flu contingency plan. A pledge by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to step up checks and surveillance is also to be welcomed. Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man stressed there was no evidence to suggest the risk of human-to-human infection was very high or sustainable at this stage. While there is no need for alarm, there is also no room for complacency. As the minister admitted, more cases might be found later.
The threat of the new virus to humans is being closely watched by the local and international community. That it has caused more infections elsewhere in a shorter period than any other virus strain means it should not be treated lightly. Thankfully, Hong Kong has accumulated a wealth of experience in handling infectious diseases, including severe acute respiratory syndrome, H5N1 and H1N1 swine flu.
The war on H7N9 has just begun. With vigilance and surveillance, the disease can be kept under control.