Hong Kong health authorities on Tuesday stepped up checks on travellers and hospital patients after it was reported that the new H7N9 bird flu virus had infected four people in eastern China.
The Department of Health said its Centre for Health Protection (CHP) was closely monitoring the situation and would continue to liaise with mainland health authorities.
It advised Hong Kong travellers – especially those from Shanghai, Anhui and Jiangsu – to wear facial masks and seek medical attention if respiratory symptoms developed.
University of Hong Kong microbiology professor Ho Pak-leung said he believed the four new cases was not cross-infections between humans as no epidemiological connections were seen.
He believed the cases were contracted via contact with infected poultry – where the new strain might have commonly existed.
Ho said taking defensive measures at this stage was necessary but may prove difficult because infected poultry may not show any symptoms. He warned the public to pay extra attention when coming into contact with poultry.
New control measures announced in Hong Kong include intensifying checks of body temperatures of travellers from the mainland – particularly those from Shanghai and Anhui province where three of the infections were reported.
Two patients in Shanghai have died and a third in Anhui has fallen seriously ill since their infection last month. And a fourth case involving a poultry butcher was reported on Tuesday afternoon in Nanjing – the capital city of Jiangsu province, which neighbours Anhui.
Inflight broadcasts and leaflets will ask passengers from these regions to report any health conditions when they reach Hong Kong.
The emergency departments and clinics of the city’s public hospitals are also keeping an keen eye on patients with fever, a typical symptom of avian flu.
People with these symptoms who have visited the infected regions or have recently had contact with wild birds or poultry, will be put in isolated wards for further observation and tests on the H7N9 virus, the CHP said.
Dr Leung Ting-hung, controller of Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection, said on Tuesday afternoon there was no evidence so far the new strain could pass from human-to-human easily, but the city should stay vigilant. “Because any virus is capable of mutating, we have to closely monitor any latest developments,” he said.
Leung added that the new strain yielded a high death rate, although it did not appear highly contagious between humans.
Dr Dominic Tsang Ngai-chong, from the Hospital Authority’s infectious disease control branch, said it would take about one day for rapid tests to determine a human bird flu infection.
Hong Kong suffered the first major outbreak of bird flu among humans in 1997. Six people died after becoming infected with the H5N1 strain. The health authorities ordered the slaughtering of more than one million poultry birds.