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Speech by the Secretary for Health, Welfare & Food


Following is the speech (English only) by the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, at the inauguration of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases and opening ceremony of Symposium on "Preparing for Emerging Infectious Diseases: A Global Challenge" today (January 17):

Professor King, Professor Chung, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to be invited to speak at this special occasion, which marks both the inauguration of the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the opening of the symposium on "Preparing for Emerging Infectious Diseases: A Global Challenge".

After last year's SARS outbreak, the prevention and control of infectious diseases has become an important issue for the global community. For Hong Kong, while our defence mechanism has been effective in containing the spread of most existing infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis; the SARS outbreak was of a scale, in terms of infectivity, morbidity and socio-economic impact, never experienced before by our generation. To prevent SARS from dealing another blow to our society, we must remain vigilant and ensure that a high level of preparedness is maintained, and put in place a comprehensive strategy to guard against infectious diseases on various fronts of the community.

In this aspect, the Government has formulated a three-pronged approach to safeguard the health of the community. These three fronts are: (i) preventing a resurgence of the disease; (ii) maintaining close and effective surveillance for the disease; and (iii) combating it swiftly and rigourously should it come back. Let me brief you on the progress we have made on these three fronts.

On preventing a resurgence of SARS and strengthening our preparedness, we have teamed up with various relevant sectors, including the public and private healthcare sectors, the social welfare sector, schools, public housing estates, private property management, public transport, the tourism industry and other relevant stakeholders. Appropriate guidelines have been issued and necessary preventive measures, including drills and exercises, have been taken in these sectors.

On maintaining close and effective surveillance, we have facilitated timely reporting of potential SARS cases to the public health authorities by various sources, including public and private hospitals as well as private practitioners. We have also enhanced our surveillance of influenza-like illnesses and pneumonia among patients, hospital staff and residents of welfare services institutions. Internationally and within the region, we have continued to work closely with the Mainland and Macau health authorities, and maintained close communication with the World Health Organisation and the health authorities of other countries, including the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention of the US and the Health Protection Agency of the UK.

In terms of combating the disease should it return, we have already prepared an overall Government emergency response mechanism that provides for a clear command structure for making strategic decisions, distinct roles and responsibilities for different parties, the line of command in launching operations, and the response time where appropriate. In addition, individual bureaus and departments are also required to prepare their own departmental contingency plans. All these plans will be tested and fine-tuned from time to time, according to local and overseas experience and increased knowledge about the disease. In fact, we have activated the Alert Level response in the wake of the recent confirmed SARS cases in Singapore, Taiwan and Guangdong, and this alert mechanism has proven effective in intensifying our precautionary measures to be in a more organised and systematic manner.

The measures abovementioned are mainly short-term ones. To enhance Hong Kong's long-term capability to prevent and control infectious diseases, we are following up the SARS Expert Committee's recommendation to establish a Centre for Health Protection (CHP) in Hong Kong. To seek professional input on the structure and mode of operation of this new centre, we have set up an Advisory Committee comprising academics and professionals from the healthcare sector, and we are very happy to have Professor Joseph Sung serving on this committee. The committee has recently endorsed the proposed organisational structure and implementation milestones for the future centre.

We propose that initially, the centre should focus on communicable diseases, including the development and maintenance of a surveillance network to collect infection-related data, continual development and testing of our emergency response mechanism, liaison with the Hospital Authority and the private healthcare sector to enhance their infection control effort, facilitation of training for healthcare professionals on infection control, co-operation with the universities in conducting relevant applied research, and operation of the Government's public health laboratory services. As it develops, the centre should also cover other areas, including food safety and hygiene, veterinary issues and non-communicable diseases.

The new centre will be set up as part of the Department of Health, which already performs some of the basic functions of a CHP and its staff are experienced in public health matters. The public health infrastructure and statutory authority for performing the health protection functions also exist in the department. We also note that most of the similar organisations set up overseas are either government agencies or government-owned entities. For example, the renowned CDC of the United States is a government agency under the Department of Health and Human Sciences.

Because of the need to provide new accommodation, develop new information technology systems and recruit additional staff, it would take some time before the new Centre for Health Protection would become fully operational. A transitional arrangement is needed to reap early benefits while allowing sufficient time for the longer-term modalities and systems to be developed.

Under this transitional arrangement, a Centre for Health Protection with a new Surveillance and Epidemiology Branch and Infection Control Branch will start operation in mid-2004 to enrich and integrate resources to tackle communicable disease outbreaks and to improve collaboration of relevant stakeholders in the public health infrastructure for better infection control. It is expected that a health protection agency with all the other functional elements, including an Emergency Response and Information Branch, a Programme Management and Professional Development Branch, and the enhanced Public Health Laboratory Services and Public Health Services, will be operating smoothly in 2005.

It is our firm belief that the future Centre for Health Protection will adopt an integrated approach to health protection, pooling together expertise and resources from partners in the healthcare sector and other disciplines. The new organisation should also interact actively with the academia, and collaborative projects would be developed and implemented. The new Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases of the Chinese University will definitely be one of the future key partners of the future CHP, as we share the same goal to protect the health of our community from infectious diseases. We look forward to collaborating closely with the Centre and other key stakeholders in the community.

The Symposium is not only important and meaningful for the medical community but also the wider community at large. I am happy to see so many renowned fellow medical professionals joining the event. I am sure the discussion will be fruitful, inspirational and beneficial to all participants.

May I wish this seminar every success. Thank you.

Ends/Saturday, January 17, 2004


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