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Speech by Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food to infectious diseases conference


Following is the opening speech by the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, at the Hong Kong International Conference on Infectious Diseases today (January 31):

Dr Khabbaz, Prof Yang, distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the Opening Ceremony of the Hong Kong International Conference on Infectious Diseases - New Era, New Challenges for Control of Infectious Diseases. I would like to extend a particularly warm welcome to all our overseas guests and participants.

Infectious diseases are very important obstacles to social and economic development. In Hong Kong, mortality and morbidity due to infectious diseases have been much reduced with the advances in medicines and technologies, and improvements in health care services, economy, education and environment. However, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases continue to pose threats to public health because of globalisation and factors like global warming, population growth, changes in human behaviour. In particular, increased international movement of people and extensive and interrelated food chains have increased the risk of spreading infectious diseases.

The occurrence of SARS in 2003 demonstrated how a highly contagious and potentially lethal new infection could cause a global public health emergency. Moreover, the worldwide shadow of biological attack with anthrax and the recent outbreaks of avian influenza all carried the message that infectious diseases should not be taken lightly. We should always be prepared and remain vigilant to combat infectious diseases.

Infectious diseases are a dynamic problem in public health and no single intervention can solve the problem. An overall strategy to prepare for both the expected and the unexpected is thus as important as the commitments from the Government, health professionals and the community as a whole in combating infectious diseases. I would like to take the opportunity of this special occasion to share with you our strategies in preventing the resurgence of SARS and other infectious diseases. We have formulated a three-pronged approach, namely strengthening our preparedness; maintaining close and effective surveillance for the diseases; and combating the diseases promptly and rigorously, should they re-emerge.

We have strengthened our preparedness. We have been maintaining public health control measures at the border control points, and liaising closely with various relevant sectors in the community, including the public and private healthcare sectors, education, social welfare, housing, transport, tourism industry and food trading etc. We have been advising them to follow guidelines and to step up preventive measures.

We have stepped up our disease surveillance. We have enhanced the infectious disease notification mechanism within Hong Kong and with the Guangdong Province and Macau. We shall continue to maintain close relationships and share information with the World Health Organisation and other overseas health authorities. We are also committed to providing timely and accurate information on matters related to SARS and other infectious diseases to the local community to keep up a high degree of alertness.

We are geared up for the unfortunate comeback of SARS. The Government has prepared an emergency response plan on SARS with a three-level response system. Regular drills have been conducted to test the plan. The departments and parties involved in the plan also have their own contingency plan in place to get well prepared for the resurgence of SARS.

In order to further strengthen Hong Kong's long term capability to prevent and control infectious diseases, the Government is pressing ahead with the establishment of a Centre for Health Protection in 2005. Initially, the Centre would focus on infectious diseases, including the development and maintenance of a surveillance network, enhancing the hospitals' infection control measures and facilitating training and research activities. In the long run, the Centre will also have the responsibility for advising on all aspects of health protection, such as food safety and hygiene, veterinary issues and non-communicable diseases.

Step by step, we will set up two of the six Branches of the Centre for Health Protection, namely the Surveillance and Epidemiology Branch and the Infection Control Branch, by mid-2004 to enrich and integrate resources to tackle communicable disease outbreaks and to improve collaboration of relevant stakeholders for better infection control. The other functional elements, which are the Emergency Response and Information Branch, the Programme Management and Professional Development Branch, the enhanced Public Health Laboratory Services and the Public Health Services Branch, will be operating in 2005. The new organisation will interact actively with the local as well as the international academia and relevant authorities on issues related to prevention and control of infectious diseases

Finally, I would like to express my heartiest gratitude to the guest speakers and participants of the conference. As we work together to map out our future plans, I am sure that the recommendations you may conclude during this conference will make a true difference. SARS has opened our eyes to the damage that a new disease can cause on many different levels. It is in the enlightened self-interest of us all to strengthen our defenses against the threat of infectious diseases in all their dimensions.

Let me finish by wishing the conference a great success, and the overseas guests and participants, a nice stay in Hong Kong. Thank you.

Ends/Saturday, January 31, 2004


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