Ten years after the deadly Sars outbreak raised the city's consciousness of infectious diseases and hygiene, Hongkongers may be dropping their guard.
This is according to a university survey that found fewer people are wearing face masks when they have a cold or flu and washing their hands regularly - two actions recommended by disease-control experts to ward off infection. The trend is especially noticeable among young people, the University of Hong Kong public opinion programme, which conducted the poll, says.
"Sars has left us for 10 years now and Hongkongers' awareness has fallen," infectious disease specialist Dr Thomas So Man-kit said, commenting on the results after their release yesterday. "But we are still facing threats of various diseases, including new emerging viruses."
In 2003, Sars infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong, killing 299. Globally there were 8,096 infections and 774 deaths.
Of 513 residents aged 25 or over interviewed early last month, 65 per cent said Hong Kong people in general had reduced their efforts to maintain personal hygiene. Asked why, 81 per cent of those polled said "there is no Sars now and no need to be so nervous over common cold and flu". And 39 per cent said they had "forgotten about those personal hygiene measures".
But So said that although Sars had not returned, the measures were important in preventing respiratory infections like influenza, whose threat should not be underestimated.
Noting that the plunge in personal hygiene awareness was greatest among the young, programme director Robert Chung Ting-yiu called for more public health and education policies.
In the survey, interviewees were asked to compare their current practices with those 10 years ago. Asked if they wore a face mask when they had cold or flu symptoms, 52 per cent said they did, down from 65 per cent who said they did so 10 years ago. Those aged 25 to 29 saw the most significant drop - 30 percentage points to 53 per cent at present.
As for washing hands upon returning home and before meals for at least 20 seconds with soap, 62 per cent of respondents said they did so 10 years ago; and only 44 per cent did so now. Just 26 per cent of those aged 25 to 29 did so now - the fewest of all age groups.