Early quarantine best way to avert Sars-like outbreak: health chief

Swift isolation of suspected cases is at the core of the government's strategy to prevent another epidemic, the health minister says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2013, 4:14am

It was a dreaded scene from years ago: people clad in full protective gear entering and exiting a quarantined hotel in a city caught in the grip of a fatal virus.

That scene, which emerged in 2003 and then again in 2009, may return to haunt Hongkongers if another epidemic strikes.

Ten years from the dark days of the 2003 Sars crisis, the health chief who battled the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus says the government still considers an early quarantine strategy the best way to avert an outbreak.

Food and Health Bureau Secretary Dr Ko Wing-man was responding to concern that a new Sars-like coronavirus had surfaced in the Middle East and that the city's overloaded public hospitals lacked the capacity to deal with another such crisis.

"This is a lesson we learned from Sars," said Ko, who was at the forefront of the battle as the Hospital Authority's acting chief executive at the time. "We must cut off the transmission chain at a very key moment to stop suspected cases from spreading."

The government might use hotels or holiday campsites to isolate people should the need arise to undertake a large-scale quarantine at the community level, he said. When Sars took hold of the city, an entire block at Amoy Gardens, the Kowloon Bay estate where 42 victims eventually died, was isolated. About 240 residents were taken to quarantine camps.

The most recent memory of the practice was in 2009, when nearly 300 employees and guests at the Metropark hotel in Wan Chai were quarantined for seven nights after a Mexican guest was found infected with swine flu. All were released in good health.

Back then, the government faced criticism that it had overreacted. "But the [quarantine] policy is necessary … We have to put emergency measures in place at a very early stage, even if it comes before the scientific evidence," Ko said. "Still, it is always hard to decide who and when to isolate."

Ko said the city had not seen any serious suspected or confirmed case of the new virus, but now the government was better prepared. "Our stored emergency resources … can be used for a month," he said.

Doctors would isolate and run tests on patients displaying Sars-like symptoms, he said. Public hospitals have increased their number of isolation beds to 1,400. Five hundred of those beds can be used immediately, with the rest ready for use within 72 hours.

Ko said the isolation wards should be reserved for infected cases who showed serious symptoms and needed treatment. Their close contacts would be quarantined in the community.

"[The hospitals' overall lack of capacity] is a problem we are facing as we cope with huge local and overseas demand," Ko admitted. "The government has to work hard to expand the service in the public and private sectors."

In 2003, Ko took over from Hospital Authority chief William Ho Shiu-wei after Ho contracted Sars. Ko resigned in 2004.