Mers virus

Vigilance and timely information are key to tackling threat of Mers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 June, 2015, 1:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 June, 2015, 1:31am

If information and vigilance are the best defence against a looming public health crisis, panic and confusion are the biggest enemies. Unfortunately, we have seen more of the latter as the threat of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) edged closer to Hong Kong over the past few days.

It does not take an expert to warn of the risk of visiting a place where a serious communicable disease is spreading fast. Having been in the vortex of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, the city knows perfectly well how travel can expedite a local disease into a global health threat. As more disturbing news comes out of South Korea, a popular travel destination for Hongkongers, the public is naturally turning to the government for authoritative advice on travel to the country. But to the confusion of many, there was only an appeal against unnecessary travel from the health chief initially. It wasn't until the following morning that the government issued a red travel warning, amid an outcry over trip cancellations and refund arrangements by the industry.

It's just an example of how indecision can cause confusion. Without a formal warning, many travellers would be visiting the country at their own risk. The U-turn speaks volumes of the misjudgment and lack of coordination across the relevant authorities. Officials explained that the outbound travel alert is based on the assessment of security risks arising from natural disasters, as well as political and social unrest. Given the high volume of air traffic between the two places and the health risks involved, the alert system should also take into account the outbreak of communicable diseases.

While staying vigilant is the best prevention, there is no need for overreaction. The city was in panic mode on Wednesday, when social media was flooded with news of a woman with flu symptoms being rushed to hospital. Thankfully, her test result for Mers was negative, as were those of the more than 30 other suspected cases. It is good that officials will update the public on the situation twice every day. With due vigilance and information, a health crisis can, hopefully, be averted.