Infectious diseases, as Hong Kong well knows, are not to be taken lightly. The city's crowded conditions and attractiveness for travel, tourism and business mean that viruses can easily take hold and spread rapidly. We have learned that vigilance, transparency, a questioning media and unambiguous preventative measures are the best way to keep viruses at bay. If authorities on the mainland had similar policies in place, it is doubtful that so much uncertainty would surround the death from bird flu at the weekend of a Shenzhen bus driver.
Authorities say they do not know how the 39-year-old man came to have the H5N1 virus. The last previous reported case on the mainland was 18 months ago and no infected birds have been found. (A chicken found dead at Cheung Sha Wan poultry market prompted our government on December 20 to cull 19,451 birds and ban the sale of live chickens.) Officials in Shenzhen have backtracked on initial suspicions that the man's jogging in a wetland park was connected to his illness. It seems he had no direct contact with poultry or migratory birds, frequent sources of outbreaks, and had not travelled for a month. Human-to-human transmission has been ruled out.
Flu viruses evolve, so an open mind is needed. We do know, though, that the mainland's monitoring and reporting systems leave much to be desired. The 22-week delay in Guangdong authorities admitting to the Sars outbreak in late 2002 still hangs heavily; it went on to kill 299 people in Hong Kong and more than 700 globally. There were doubts the lesson had been learned in 2009, when there were reports of people dying from H5N1 and dead birds infected with the virus washed up on our shores; Beijing was still slow to make statements about outbreaks.
Allaying concerns and stopping outbreaks requires transparency and sturdy monitoring. As in Hong Kong, authorities have to issue frequent updates. The media has to be able to report freely. This is why cases in birds are reported in Hong Kong before people fall ill. Without such mechanisms, fear and doubts will persist and the possibility of outbreaks will remain a threat.