Super Typhoon Haiyan has left thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands in desperate need in the central Philippines. Hong Kong's brush with a typhoon came most recently in September: Usagi, with all its potential of becoming the city's strongest storm in 34 years, eventually made landfall in Guangdong. While Hong Kong was fortunate to escape a direct hit, Usagi left 29 dead in Guangdong, cut off electricity and water supplies for many households, and wreaked havoc on public transport and communications networks.
Usagi was the sixth tropical cyclone that necessitated a Hong Kong Observatory warning this year, and the second requiring the hoisting of the No 8 signal. With climate change looming large, Hong Kong will probably be struck by more and stronger typhoons in the future. There may be no way to prevent such natural disasters, but surely the damage can be minimised if both the government and the people are well prepared.
The government stresses the need to take adequate precautionary measures to reduce the direct impact of the storms, in terms of casualties and property loss. In the same vein, people usually take measures to secure their property and stock up on food supplies.
Yet, this is unlikely to be sufficient when Hong Kong is hit directly by a typhoon as strong as or stronger than Usagi. Besides weather chaos, typhoons also bring along less visible, but no less threatening, risks to people's health. Incessant, heavy rain, leading to blocked drains, is a sure recipe for increasing cases of intestinal infection as a result of contaminated water and food supplies; higher humidity levels will foster mould growth, which leads to higher incidences of chronic respiratory diseases; water pools left behind by storms serve as a hotbed for mosquito breeding and hence dengue fever; metal from destroyed structures can rust, increasing the risks of tetanus, while damaged wires may cause electric shocks.
The fact that such health risks are overlooked by Hongkongers has been confirmed in a recent study by the Collaborating Centre for Oxford University and CUHK for Disaster and Medical Humanitarian Response (CCOUC). The preliminary results show people believe epidemics such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu pose the highest risk. Few were aware of the hazards they face in the aftermath of natural disasters.
Unsurprisingly, the report found many Hongkongers were ignorant about post-disaster health risk management. Very few have had first-aid training, and few households have first-aid kits and/or fire extinguishers at home. Hong Kong people have come to rely solely on the city's comprehensive primary health care system. Unfortunately, when disaster strikes, government emergency health care services are likely to be overwhelmed and people should equip themselves with basic skills.
The first step is to make individuals aware of the health risks arising from such disasters. Much more could be done by the government and research institutes in this respect; there is no telling when the next disaster will strike, and with what force.
Professor Emily Ying Yang Chan is director of CCOUC at the School of Public Health and Primary Care, Chinese University of Hong Kong. Chi Shing Wong is CCOUC centre manager