Fears of measles outbreak in Hong Kong prompt call for vaccines to be provided to private doctors
Hong Kong Medical Association to press for MMR vaccines to be distributed to private clinics as outbreaks of disease in Taiwan and Okinawa heighten public worries in city
The city’s largest doctors’ group, the Hong Kong Medical Association, has urged the government to provide measles vaccines to private clinics amid concerns among the public that an outbreak of the highly contagious virus could occur locally as has happened in Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan.
But health authorities and the Medical Association said on Monday that it was unlikely the city would see an outbreak as 90 per cent of the population have been vaccinated either with the single measles vaccine or MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot.
Still, the Department of Health’s Centre for Health Protection and the Medical Association said people should avoid going to measles hotspots such as Okinawa and Taiwan, particularly young children and pregnant women.
“A healthy person would have long-term or lifelong protection after they received the measles vaccines,” CHP controller Dr Wong Ka-hing said.
Hong Kong children have received the MMR vaccine at age one and a booster shot at Primary One since the 1990s. Until the late 1980s, the stand-alone measles vaccine was given in two doses.
Symptoms of measles include cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, sore throat, fever and a red, blotchy rash.
Those who are worried about catching measles should have their antibodies level tested to see if they need an MMR shot, the Medical Association said. The test costs at least HK$500 (US$64) while the vaccine costs over HK$1,000.
Medical Association president Dr Gabriel Choi Kin said he was meeting with the Food and Health Bureau on Monday night to press for MMR vaccines to be distributed to private clinics to ease public concerns over a perceived shortage of the jabs.
“Only government outpatient departments, and maternal and child health centres have stocks of vaccine reserved for one-year-olds and Primary One pupils,” Choi said.
But Wong said the government had no plans to supply the private sector with vaccines reserved for its childhood immunisation programme. He said the two pharmaceutical companies that supply the vaccine had assured officials there was enough stock.
Choi said he had received inquiries from his patients for the vaccine.
“I have told my patients I do not have the vaccines available and most of the population of Hong Kong were vaccinated and have antibodies against measles,” he added. “And if they are concerned they should have their antibodies checked or they should not go to Okinawa or Taiwan.”
Paediatrician and association vice-president Dr Alvin Chan Yee-shing said he had received inquiries but that people had “anxiety” disorder because of what was happening in Okinawa and Taiwan.
He said children under one year old should not be brought to these outbreak zones, or if that was unavoidable then the child should be immunised. However, it took a few weeks for the vaccine to fully protect the baby.
Paediatricians in the private sector have stocks for young children.
Health authorities in Taiwan have been on alert since last month as the number of patients with measles was at its highest level in nine years, with 24 confirmed cases as of April 27.
So far, there have been 75 confirmed cases of measles in Okinawa.
Also since the beginning of the year, measles has been confirmed in a number of other countries including Brazil, the US, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Antigua and Barbuda, Colombia and Guatemala.
The World Health Organisation is calling on these and other countries to fortify vaccination efforts.
The perceived local shortage in vaccines was apparently because of the recent outbreaks in Japan and Taiwan, as well as a confirmed case last week involving a 46-year-old expat in Hong Kong who had visited Thailand, which has no outbreak.
Over the past five years, between four and 50 cases were reported in the city annually.
But Wong said figures in 2015 showed that 98 per cent of the local population had immunity to the disease and there would be no issues for them to go to affected areas abroad.
The centre stressed that children under one year old, who would not have had jabs, pregnant women and anyone not vaccinated should avoid visiting measles-hit areas.