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SFH on human swine flu (with photo)

     Following is the transcript of remarks (English portion) made by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, after meeting the 18 District Council chairmen and vice-chairmen at Southorn Centre today (April 30):

Secretary for Food and Health: I have just met with the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the 18 District Councils and reported to them on the new measures the Government has taken on the preparedness for the pandemic. And we have received support from all of them.

     Many of the District Councils have already made preparations in their respective districts, so they are ready to support the Government and also to mobilise the community to enhance the cleansing campaign of the city as well as to give information to the citizens regarding environmental hygiene and this impending pandemic.

     The Government has also allocated initially $10 million to the 18 District Councils, so that each of the council would receive at least half a million in order to deliver the campaign. We also know that this morning, WHO has elevated the pandemic alert from phase four to phase five, it means that the pandemic is imminent. The Government has also made a decision that we will raise our alert level to the highest level, that is, emergency as soon as it is required. Once WHO is going to announce that the pandemic alert has raised to phase six, or there is a first confirmed case of human swine flu in Hong Kong, we will definitely raise our alert level to emergency immediately. So no matter whether it is the Government or citizens, we must not be complacent.

     We must raise our alert and be vigilant against any impending threat of pandemic. So although we have done everything we need, we still need to have support of our citizens. The Government will mobilise our resources, and if it is necessary, we will also exercise the law regarding emergency authority of the Government so that we can isolate and quarantine patients and if required, try to use the resources from the private sectors.

     As I mentioned earlier on, the border control is one of our important measures. Starting from today, every visitor to Hong Kong from the airport needs to make a health declaration. Also, because it is a long weekend starting from tomorrow, the land borders will also be strengthened with nursing stations and increasing staffs in helping visitors, to give them any support in case of need.

     The Department of Health will be meeting the corresponding officials in Shenzhen, to ensure that their counterpart is also doing the same thing on the other side of the border. Regarding the medical facilities, the Hospital Authority is already well prepared to handle any new cases of swine flu in case it starts to emerge.

     We have also co-coordinated with the private doctors, including the Hong Kong Medical Association. We have also discussed with them about the pandemic situation and give them guidelines, so that they can help the Government to inform the patients and their families regarding the swine flu situation. They will also actively support the health education and activities in the 18 districts.

     Hong Kong is a place that is densely populated. We also have a lot of international movement. So it is not an easy task to prevent any spread of swine flu pandemic.  So we must cooperate, we must help out each other and also look out for helping each other. We must ensure that we are doing the best preparation and at the same time preparing for the worst.

     I hope that every citizen, every corporation, including the transport  corporations, shopping malls, restaurants, cinemas, is able to help. So we can keep good environmental hygiene and personal hygiene. If we can do that, we can minimise the spread of pandemic to the minimum. Thank you very much.

Reporter: (inaudible)

Secretary for Food and Health: If you listen to the advice of the WHO.  They have already said that restriction of travelling would not be effective by now because it has already spread to the rest of the world, quite a number of countries and continents.  But as far as Hong Kong is concerned, since we have not had the first case, we still like to grasp this opportunity to minimise this spread or risk.  If we can identify the first case at the border, we can start isolating them, we can also quarantine those close contacts, we can minimise the spread.  But of course, if there are multiple entrances in Hong Kong, the first case turns out to be somebody who has no symptoms when they pass through our border and develop symptoms subsequently and able to pass on other people, then of course we might not be able to abort this transmission.  So, I think we are doing everything to minimise it, first at the border and if necessary in the community level.  We have to make preparation for different stages.  If necessary, we would like to make order to minimise the activities of the city so that we can minimise human contacts as much as possible and retain only the essential services.  This is what we have planned so far.  We hope that we need not actually activate this.

Reporter: (index patient)

Secretary for Food and Health: If you look at the incubation period of this virus which is commonly three to four days, with a maximum of seven days.  If people travelling from, say Mexico or nearby places that are affected by this virus, it probably takes him about two to three days before he arrives to Hong Kong when he first has the contact with the virus.  The chance that this person might have already had the infection or having the infection is still high.  Of course, there are people who might have a longer incubation period who might come in and still they don't know they are actually having the virus.  So, there would be the patients who would only start the noticeable after he arrives in Hong Kong.  We try to catch the first two groups if possible.  I think Hong Kong still has this advantage in terms of travelling time and so on to do this.  Since we do not have direct flights to Mexico, most people arrive from Mexico, say would perhaps spend at least 24 hours before actually coming to Hong Kong.  There is a chance we might catch them.

Reporter: (inaudible)

Secretary for Food and Health: In our health declaration form, we have specified whether someone has been in contact with somebody who has symptoms of swine flu, although they might be asymptomatic.  If they have that contact, we will request them to be either home quarantine or they would come to the hospital for examination.  This depends on the history taken by our health officials at the port health positions.

Reporter: (inaudible)

Secretary for Food and Health: If there is no hint of whatsoever anybody has been in contact with any swine flu patient, there is no way that we can actually detect it.  So, we can only go according to what the passengers have experienced in the last seven days.  This is the best we can do.

Reporter: (no additional resources at the airport)

Secretary for Food and Health: Of course, we will increase the staff at the airport of the port health.  As I have said earlier, you cannot detect anybody who is asymptomatic, have no history of contact and yet ask him to be quarantined.  That is not really reasonable.  I think it is important to have more detailed information from those passengers and their volunteered information given to us.  And if this pandemic is affecting everybody and has been widely publicised in the international media, I believe that most people would be worried about their health.  If they suspect that they have been in contact with somebody who might pass this novel virus to them, I believe they would volunteer and try to seek help when they arrive in Hong Kong.

Reporter: (inaudible)

Secretary for Food and Health: First point about what would be predicted scenario regarding the pandemic, there are schools of thought, one is pessimist and one is optimist.  Because there is so much unknown about this virus, I don't think it is right for us to make any so-called assumptions and tell the public about those assumptions.  But I can tell you that it ranges from a seasonal flu type of scenario which is the mildness to something like the 1918 scenario where you have millions of people died from it.  I don't think we need to make this assumption at this point of time, rather we try to follow the progress of this pandemic in every place.  I've said earlier on, if you look at the city make-up of Hong Kong, and also the lifestyle and the human traffic of Hong Kong, it is very much like New York city.  We will take reference of what is happening in the New York city as one way of assessing what is the likely scenario in Hong Kong.  Although we might have other differences, but I think that at the moment, this is something that we think is rather relevant.  We have actually asked the Hong Kong trade office in New York to give us a daily report of what is happening in New York.  At the same time, we also have constant liaison with some of the researchers and academics in the United States and try to get the most updated information on what is their scenario over there.  Your second question of our preparedness this time compared with SARS, of course, there are certain differences.  In SARS, we do not know even the virus when the patients get infected.  It is only three or four weeks after the first infection before we discover the virus.  Irrespective of the diagnostic methodology and treatment methods, the first few weeks during SARS, I would have to say that it is very challenging.  This time, we are slightly better because we know that genetic make-up of the virus.  We are probably being able to develop a quick diagnostic test within the next week or so.  We also know that the virus is sensitive to the medicine we have stockpiled.  So, those are the so-called positive points.  Of course, the negative point this time is that it is spreading quite fast.  I think it is also spreading in the community rather than in the hospital like SARS patient.  This is a huge difference.  That is also the reason why the WHO has remarked that it is pointless to control the border.  It is better to try to mitigate the spread in the community.  But since Hong Kong has not faced the first case, we feel that there is still a chance of catching it as early as possible.

(Please also refer to the Chinese portion of the transcript.)

Ends/Thursday, April 30, 2009
Issued at HKT 19:50


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