Novel coronavirus

'Sars-like virus could hit HK despite false alarm'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 10:22am

Hong Kong should not lower its guard against a deadly Sars-like virus despite the city's first suspected case being a false alarm, a microbiologist warned.

Dr Ho Pak-leung, of the University of Hong Kong, spoke out after a four-year-old boy tested negative for novel coronavirus, which has killed one Middle Eastern man and left another seriously ill.

The Centre for Health Protection confirmed the Saudi Arabian child had tested positive only for influenza A (H1N1) 2009 - a common cause of human flu.

But Ho said Hong Kong, like many major cities with busy traffic, was vulnerable to the spread of any contagious diseases.

"We are unclear about the new virus, such as its degree of contagiousness and lethality," he said. "Even though Sunday's case turned out to be a false alarm, we should continue to stay alert."

His view was shared by the Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man, who told an RTHK radio show that identifying any infected person quickly was vital.

"The most worrying situation is when the patient has waited until very sick to seek treatment. It means the patient has stayed in the community for some time and spread the disease in the hotel or hospital, making contact tracing very difficult," Ko said.

Learning from the Sars outbreak in 2003 and swine flu scare in 2009, the government has already identified venues for isolation in case the new virus reaches Hong Kong.

"Also, our isolation policy can be more flexible and … adjusted according to different situations. For instance, if the traveller who carried the disease had newly arrived in Hong Kong and stayed in the hotel room by himself without going anywhere, we may only need to isolate that floor of the hotel, not the whole building," he said.

On Sunday, the health authorities raised the alarm after the boy was admitted to the emergency unit at Ruttonjee Hospital with a fever, cough and vomiting. He was later transferred to Queen Mary Hospital and kept in isolation. Hey had arrived from Jeddah on Wednesday with his father, who had a fever.

The new coronavirus has killed a 60-year-old man in Saudi Arabia, and infected a 49-year-old Qatari man who survived.

Medical centres around the world have been on alert since the Saudi Arabian man died several months ago.

The World Health Organisation said the new virus was not the one that causes Sars, which killed about 800 people, including 299 in Hong Kong, in 2003.