Ebola virus threat to Hong Kong is minimal, say health experts

Microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung urges people in the city to be vigilant but says special preventative measures will not be necessary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 5:49am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:28am

The risk of the worst outbreak of Ebola in history spreading through Hong Kong remains minimal, say health experts who are urging the public to remain calm.

"Overall, my assessment is that the risk is low but we just need to be vigilant," said Yuen Kwok-yung, a professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong who was feted for his research on Sars during the 2003 crisis.

"While the disease is still confined to West Africa, the key control measure for the HKSAR is the education for any returning traveller from this region … If everybody is vigilant, the risk to the HKSAR is minimal, as we do not import any animals from West Africa," said Yuen.

Yuen also said there was no need for special preventative measures, such as banning travellers from the affected countries from entering Hong Kong.

Watch: What is the Ebola virus

"I do not think all these are necessary at this stage," he said. "Prohibition of passport holders is really draconian and will lead to unnecessary discrimination against uninfected individuals. People will find ways to circumvent all these measures."

The Secretary for Food and Health, Ko Wing-man, said yesterday that the Hong Kong government did not expect a "looming crisis" on Ebola in Hong Kong as there were no direct flights between the city and the affected countries in West Africa.

Yuen's comments echoed those of Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who helped to discover the virus while working as a researcher in central Africa in 1976.

In an interview last week, Piot said that a sense of panic and a lack of trust in the West African authorities had contributed to the current spread of the disease, but added it was unlikely to snowball into a global epidemic.

"Spreading in the population here [UK], I'm not that worried about it," the London-based professor told Agence France-Presse. "I wouldn't be worried to sit next to someone with Ebola virus on the Tube as long as they don't vomit on you or something. This is an infection that requires very close contact."

Since March there have been more than 1,200 reported cases of the disease and more than 700 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to figures from the World Health Organisation.

Eliza Cheung Yee-lai, a clinical psychologist with the Hong Kong Red Cross in Liberia, described the situation as getting exponentially worse every day.

"People are lost in the fear. They are not just fighting the disease, but the fear of the disease," said the 29-year-old who left Hong Kong for West Africa on July 22.

According to Cheung, who works closely with frontline volunteers, cultural factors relating to death and burial in rural communities are contributing to the spread of the disease.

"In accordance with local customs when a person dies, the body is washed and put in the house with the family members. It is even offered food. But the virus is at a maximum in people's bodies when they die" said Cheung.

Entire communities had also prevented health care teams from collecting the deceased for fear of disturbing these rituals, she added.

Historically, the mortality rate for the disease has been as high as 90 per cent, although the current rate is about 60 per cent.

In its latter stages, Ebola symptoms can become increasingly aggressive and sometimes includes bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose and other orifices.

However, transmission is relatively difficult and only occurs through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected patient, putting health care workers predominantly at risk.

"The situation here is particularly serious because of poverty and poor health care infrastructure," said Cheung.

"I totally understand why the Hong Kong public is concerned because we all lived through Sars. However, as long as people stay away from bodily fluids, the risk of getting the disease is not high."

Last week a Hong Kong woman who fell ill after visiting Kenya tested negative for the disease. The 39-year-old woman was kept in isolation in Queen Elizabeth Hospital.