Parents should keep young children out of wet markets, a doctor warned yesterday, as officials confirmed a two-year-old boy who came to Hong Kong from Guangzhou nine days ago has the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, with his condition worsening in the last 24 hours.
The Centre for Health Protection revealed the boy had visited a wet market selling live poultry in Guangzhou in May.
The boy is in serious condition in Princess Margaret Hospital's intensive care unit in Kwai Chung, where his parents are in quarantine.
Two nurses and a patient from a private clinic in Mong Kok where the boy was first treated for fever on May 26 have also been quarantined, but none has tested positive for bird flu.
Dr Ho Pak-leung, the city's leading bird flu expert and a University of Hong Kong microbiologist, said the case highlighted a gap in government efforts to prevent bird flu infections because a key group at risk - people who frequently travel between the mainland and Hong Kong - had fallen through the cracks.
'Not enough is being done for those who often visit mainland China, as they tend to belong to the under-privileged groups who have less access to information,' Ho (pictured) said.
He also said many Hongkongers had become complacent about bird flu since it first struck people in 1997. 'It has been around for 15 years and, in Hong Kong, the public has been desensitised with these isolated human infections and some may have been complacent with hygiene.'
Ho allayed fears that the latest case may involve a mutation, as no secondary infections had emerged, but urged the government to improve education for those who cross the border regularly, such as mainland mothers married to Hong Kong men.
'They might visit wet markets on the mainland and not be as vigilant as in Hong Kong,' he said. In the past five years, many human bird flu infections had been linked to wet markets, he said.
In December, a man died from the H5N1 strain after contracting the illness in Shenzhen, prompting the culling of thousands of chickens.
Secretary for Food and Health Dr York Chow Yat-ngok played down the latest infection, describing it as an isolated case.
Chow said there were no plans to restrict live-poultry imports and no registered farm supplying live poultry to Hong Kong was within a 13 kilometre radius of the boy's home. He said all 30 chicken farms in the city would be inspected this weekend. A hotline has been set up, 2125 1111.
The flu pandemic response system
Alert: bird flu outbreaks affecting poultry outside Hong Kong; confirmed cases of highly pathogenic bird flu in Hong Kong in birds, parks or the environment; or confirmed human bird flu case/s outside city.
Serious: confirmed outbreak in poultry in Hong Kong due to a strain with known human health impact; or confirmed case/s of bird flu in city.
Emergency: evidence confirming efficient human-to-human transmission in Hong Kong or overseas; or flu strain causing several outbreaks in at least one country and spreading to other countries.
Source: Centre for Health Protection