HK steps up checks at entry points

By Li Xueying | Source: ANN
Hong Kong is stepping up inspections at border checkpoints and placing its hospitals on alert, as news of three infections in China from a strain of bird flu not found in humans before reverberate through the region.

Shanghai, where two men have died from the H7N9, is also intensifying monitoring of respiratory illness cases at hospitals, Taiwan’s Taoyuan airport is beefing up checks of passengers from China, Hong Kong and Macau, and Singapore too said it is monitoring the situation closely.

The regional escalation in precautionary measures came as governments strove to make sense of the new strain hitherto seen only in infected poultry.

Hong Kong Health Secretary Ko Wing Man yesterday said he is concerned that the virus had mutated and could spread between humans. So far, tests have shown that the three cases had not infected one another, which points to more than one infection source – and the possibility of outbreaks – among poultry.

Speaking in a radio interview, Ko also said he did not think the mainland authorities were deliberately hiding information.

The Chinese government revealed on Sunday that a man, aged 87, fell ill on February 19 and died on March 4, while another, aged 27, became unwell on February 27 and died on March 10. A 35-year-old woman in the province of Anhui, near Shanghai, is in critical condition after falling sick on March 9.

Some had criticised the time lag in making public the situation.

Yesterday, Chinese state media said Shanghai’s health bureau had ordered hospitals to boost monitoring and supervision of respiratory illness cases. But the authorities remain unsure how the three became infected, said the Shanghai Daily newspaper.

The H7N9 is a new strain that differs from the more common H5N1 strain of avian flu, which has killed over 360 people worldwide since 2003, according to the World Health Organisation.

Dr David Hui, head of Chinese University of Hong Kong’s respiratory medicine division, said previous outbreaks of the H7 family strain were “very mild” among the poultry. “To jump to humans and leading to death, the H7N9 is certainly quite aggressive, so we have to be cautious.”

The latest strain has caused anxiety in Hong Kong, coming on the heels of its marking the 10th anniversary of the Sars crisis. In February 2003, a Guangdong resident crossed into the city bearing the virus, which eventually infected 1,755 and killed 299.

Hong Kong is particularly vulnerable to the transmission of viruses. Last year, an average of 96,000 tourists from mainland China alone arrived daily.

A Health Department spokesman told The Straits Times that surveillance has been stepped up at the city’s six land crossings, three port terminals and the international airport.

Passengers from Shanghai or Anhui with a fever would be required to go to hospitals for checks, while doctors have been reminded to report suspected cases.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Health said it would continue to monitor the avian flu situation closely for any evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission.

All hospitals in the republic remained vigilant to notify the ministry immediately of any suspected cases of avian flu, it added, and processes were in place to manage patients with symptoms.