Hong Kong medical workers 'put at risk in Ebola scare'

Hospital staff who handled sick Nigerian patient wore only flimsy protective gear and no eye protection, says microbiologist

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 5:31pm

Public hospitals should upgrade protection for medical workers who deal with any possible infections of the fatal Ebola virus, a microbiologist said yesterday as he condemned how staff were equipped to deal with Hong Kong's first suspected case.

Preventive measures should also be stepped up at public places such as Chek Lap Kok, according to a top pharmacist.

The calls for caution came as life at Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui returned to normal yesterday after a brief Ebola scare at the weekend. No one was seen wearing the surgical masks that Hongkongers often reach for during the flu season.

Watch: What do Hongkongers think about Ebola?

The health scare was triggered when a 32-year-old Nigerian man who was staying at one of the many guest houses in the high-rise complex was taken to hospital on Sunday morning with vomiting and diarrhoea - early symptoms of the disease that has broken out in West Africa, claiming almost 1,000 lives. By Sunday night tests had confirmed the man did not have Ebola.

But Hong Kong should stay vigilant, considering its proximity to Guangzhou, home to Asia's biggest African community, health experts say.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung noted hospital employees who handled the patient on Sunday were wearing only flimsy protective gear and no eye protection.

That was inadequate against the highly infectious Ebola virus, he said. The workers should have donned masks or goggles, in addition to protective gowns.

"If the patient threw up in front of you, your eyes and nose would be heavily smeared with vomit without facial protection," Ho told RTHK yesterday. "This is one area we should improve on."

Iris Chang Yee-mao, consulting pharmacist of the Academy of Pharmacy, called for better hygiene controls at public places.

"The government must remind the public as well as owners of densely populated places often frequented by high-risk tourists, such as Chungking Mansions, to put in place the highest level of preventive measures," she said.

Yesterday morning at Chungking Mansions, in Nathan Road - arguably the city's most culturally diverse place - Ghanaian Owusu James, who runs a menswear shop on the ground floor, said most of the Africans there were in Hong Kong before the Ebola outbreak was first detected in West Africa in December.

"All of them, they live here; they're not visitors," Owusu said. "I'm not scared. Some of them used to come and do business every month … but [recently] some could not get a visa."

Since last year, Hong Kong had tightened visa policies on many African countries for reasons unknown to him, he said.

Among the four West African countries where Ebola patients have died this year, only Guinea gets visa-free treatment to Hong Kong, the Immigration Department says on its website. Nationals of Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia need visas.

The shopkeeper of a cellphone store said he, too, had seen fewer clients from Africa since last year.

"Now these guys (African traders) go to Dubai or directly to China, because many things [in Hong Kong] are expensive," Moazam Khan said.