Hong Kong health chief needs to act after rodent infection
Discovery of world’s first case of human with rat hepatitis E virus puts the city to shame, and should prompt greater environmental hygiene and extra vigilance from everyone
Hong Kong has no shortage of discoveries in the medical field, but the latest by researchers at the University of Hong Kong puts us to shame. In what is said to be a world medical first, a 56-year-old man with liver problems is believed to have been infected with the rat hepatitis E virus. Thankfully, he has recovered.
Although it remains unclear just how the man became infected, the discovery has raised disturbing questions about the city’s environmental hygiene. The public housing estate where he lives is known to have problems with rats, and researchers believe contamination of food by infected droppings is possible. Fellow residents have told how it is not unusual to see rats as big as cats running around near refuse areas.
There is probably no need to panic at this stage, because the circumstances of the case are unique. The man has liver problems and his organ was shown to be functioning abnormally following a transplant last year. But researchers have warned that it is hard to say whether a serious outbreak will occur.
While the chances of infection are governed by factors such as personal hygiene and immunity, environmental conditions are also important. Rodent infestation has long been an issue of concern in the city, and a government tracking mechanism is in place to monitor the situation. The overall index between June and December last year stood at 3.5 per cent, down from 4 per cent in the previous corresponding period. With the figure for the district in question even lower, it seems the index may not reflect the risks to public health.
Medical experts have rightly renewed calls to improve environmental and personal hygiene. The deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003 taught us a painful lesson but, as time goes by, we seem to have lowered our guard and become less enthusiastic in keeping the city clean. The news that the first human infection of the rat hepatitis E virus took place in Hong Kong should prompt extra vigilance from everyone.
We hope Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee means business with her pledge to step up efforts to ensure no repeat of infections.