Deadly Hong Kong flu outbreak ‘won’t spread to mainland’, says disease expert
Respiratory disease specialist , hailed for his methods during 2003 crisis, says virus will be gone in two months and won't reach mainland
The influenza outbreak that has killed 326 people in Hong Kong since the start of the year will be over in two more months, says a top respiratory disease specialist in China, hailed as a hero for fighting severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003.
Dr Zhong Nanshan made his prediction as the H3N2 virus took eight more lives yesterday.
"The outbreak will probably peak in March … and may be over in April or May," Zhong, head of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases under Guangzhou Medical University, said in Beijing, on the sidelines of annual meetings of the National People's Congress.
He believed the risk of the Hong Kong outbreak developing into an epidemic was low.
"Hong Kong often sees new forms of flu at this time of year," he said.
During the Sars epidemic, Zhong proposed implementing early diagnosis, quarantine and treatment. Under his guidance, Guangdong had the fewest Sars deaths and highest number of recoveries across the nation and the provincial government gave him a top merit award.
The H3N2 strain of flu, despite the large number of deaths, is not considered as threatening as Sars because nearly all the victims have been elderly and infirm, with low immunity.
Outbreaks in the past four weeks had occurred mainly in homes for the elderly and in schools. This week, Hong Kong has recorded seven institutional outbreaks involving 38 people.
At Siu Lam Hospital in Castle Peak, three male patients aged between 44 and 52 developed flu symptoms. Two tested positive for influenza B, with the third still awaiting test results, the Hospital Authority reported yesterday.
The number of H3N2-infected laboratory specimens continues to drop - from 38.7 per cent in the fifth week of January to 22.2 per cent last week - a spokesman for the Centre for Health Protection said.
Although the data indicated an ongoing decrease over several weeks from peak levels, "overall influenza activity in Hong Kong is still high and is expected to remain so for some time", he said.
Zhong believed the virus would not spread to the mainland. "Since nearly all the victims have been among the elderly and sick, I don't think it will worsen and become an epidemic and spread to the mainland," he said. "It will be brought under control when the weather gets warmer."
Zhong also commented on a recent public debate about air pollution, sparked by a documentary, .
Zhong, an NPC delegate, said the measurement of smog was based on standards created in Europe and the US, but the thickness of smog shrouding mainland China was five to 10 times greater than in the West, making comparisons difficult.
Clearing up myths
Dr Ho Pak-leung, a University of Hong Kong microbiologist, talks to the about myths surrounding the seasonal flu.
The two diseases are totally different. Sars ceased after the 2003 epidemic, but seasonal flu can be seen all over the world every year. It is a very common respiratory disease. Most of the deaths [involved the] frail and elderly. Very few young people have died, whereas lots of young people were among the 299 Sars deaths.
There are vaccines and medicines for the flu, but none for Sars, which spooked the whole world then as diagnosis was difficult and medical workers had no idea what the disease was. Therefore, everyone was advised to wear masks to curb its spread. The death rate for Sars went up as high as 30 per cent, but for the flu, it is one in every 10,000.
Recovery depends on two factors - the viral variant and the patient's long-term state of health. If the virus mutates, vaccines cannot offer effective protection. Also, if the patient has not been vaccinated and suffers from chronic illness, he is more likely to develop complications. Young smokers usually have fewer healthy blood vessels and are thus more likely to see cardiovascular complications triggered by the flu.
Patients would not know whether they have the flu or not, as both upper and lower respiratory tract diseases show similar symptoms - a fever, cough, running nose and sore throat. For healthy adults with mild symptoms, it is enough to rest more and drink more water. But children and those aged above 65 should always see a doctor.