Hong Kong tackles world’s first case of patient contracting Japanese encephalitis through blood transfusion

Globally unprecedented case puts focus on the city’s blood donation policy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 11:30pm

Hong Kong health authorities are tackling the world’s first case of a patient contracting the potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease, Japanese encephalitis (JE), through a blood transfusion.

The 52-year-old man was fighting for his life at Queen Mary Hospital on Friday.

Doctors determined that two others received the same infected blood as the patient, who underwent a lung transplant at Queen Mary in May, followed by a blood transfusion at Grantham Hospital two weeks ago.

Doctors said the other two patients had not shown any symptoms, though one of them died of a brain haemorrhage after undergoing surgery earlier this month.

While the globally unprecedented case put the focus on the city’s current blood donation policy, which does not require testing for JE, health officials ruled out changing the system.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said there was no need to start screening blood donations for JE as the chance of infection was very low.

“This is a very rare and unfortunate case,” he said, adding that the lung transplant operation could have made the patient more vulnerable to the JE virus.

“From a medical point of view, I don’t see the need to develop a mass screening test, unless there is a surge in the cases of JE virus infection in Hong Kong.”

I hope this case won’t discourage the general public from donating blood in future
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, HKU

There have been only three cases of the disease so far this year, and only one in 100 infected people show symptoms such as headache, high fever and neck stiffness, usually between four and 14 days after contracting the virus. It may lead to a swelling of the brain and death.

Yuen added that it was practically impossible to check the Red Cross blood bank for the JE virus, and there was no need for public alarm.

“I hope this case won’t discourage the general public from donating blood in future,” he said.

Dr Lee Cheuk-kwong of the Red Cross suggested that in addition to filling in questionnaires regarding their health, donors should report any symptom of illness after giving blood.

Investigations revealed that the donor, a 46-year-old man living in Tin Shui Wai and working in Kwun Tong, had given blood through the Red Cross mobile donation service on May 29. He had passed all required health tests and showed no symptoms of JE.

The donor had visited London in May, but could not recall whether he had been bitten by mosquitoes. Centre for Health Protection controller Dr Wong Ka-hing said there was a very high chance he had been infected locally.

The patient suffering from brain haemorrhage received the infected blood on June 20, and died after surgery on July 4 due to bleeding. He was not tested for JE, but did not show symptoms of the virus either.

Another patient being treated for leukaemia at Queen Mary underwent a transfusion with the infected blood on June 2, but was discharged on July 14 without showing any JE symptoms.