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Transcript of Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food


Following is a transcript of the remarks made by the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, at the Central Government Offices this morning (February 21):

Reporter: Can you say a couple of words in English and if the virus can be passed to humans?

Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food: We just want to present the facts because I think there has been some misunderstanding. Obviously for the girl who died in Fujian province it is very difficult to say what the girl died of. It is also compounded that the girl left Hong Kong and became ill two days after she arrived in Fujian province. We have at no point in time in our press releases or in our statements to the media implied that this girl suffered from avian flu. What we were talking about were two other cases of the father of the girl and the brother of the girl who came down with respiratory illnesses and symptoms when they were visiting Fujian province and they became unwell and came back to Hong Kong. Both of them have now been confirmed to have avian flu. These are the facts. One can have all sorts of possibilities but these are the facts.

To us, the most important facts are that from the information that we have, both in terms of epidemiology, from the clinical background, clinical history and the history from gene sequencing because the gene sequencing is a very very good tool that has enabled us really to understand how this virus works, that it is likely that infection was directly acquired from chickens. There is no evidence of human to human spread. So, this evidence suggests to us that it is a very early part of the incident. If you are able to contain it very quickly and prevent it from spreading to humans or prevent it from spreading from birds to humans, then we are on top of the problem. We have all the facts. In Hong Kong we have been dealing with that in that context.

We also need to recognise another fact that the avian flu is present in wild birds, in migratory birds and they fly all over the place. Of course, we had incidents where migratory birds had brought some infections to some of our birds in the Penfold Park. We are now vaccinating all our birds in Hong Kong so that the risk of infection is much lowered. So migratory birds are problems and we will always have the risk of avian flu in Hong Kong.

The most important thing that we need to do is that we have a very very modern and comprehensive surveillance system that enables us to anticipate and pick up cases early. We cannot tell the public that we will not have human cases of avian flu in the future. What we can say is that we should be able to detect cases at an early stage so that we prevent the infections from spreading, both from birds to humans and from humans to humans. We are at the stage of a risk of spread from birds to humans. At the moment, there is no risk of spread from humans to humans giving rise to an epidemic. Obviously, the human to human spread does occur but is inefficient. We have no risk at this moment of any epidemic of bird flu from human to human transmission in Hong Kong.

I just also want to clarify that human to human spread potentially can occur but is usually very inefficient. When you look at the gene sequencing that the university has done, the experience with influenza virus is that for efficient human to human spread which will then give rise to pandemic, it usually incorporates human influenza gene viruses and the analysis of gene sequence of the two cases, particularly of the brother, did not show the sequence. So there is no risk at the moment of human to human spread that gives rise to an epidemic. It doesn't mean that human to human spread does not occur at the lower level. It just means that there is low propensity for pandemic. So there is absolutely no risk at the moment, based on the information that we have on these two cases, of the epidemic spreading. There are concerns on whether there are epidemic and people said whether we have resource etc. I just want to categorically say from the information we have at the moment, from just this classification of cases, there is no risk at the moment, no immediate risk of any pandemic and that we are on top of the problem. We understand much more about the virus now than we did before. We have a very very good surveillance system in Hong Kong and it has worked well for us. We will continue to look at how we modify our surveillance system to make sure that we continue to be on top because things change very quickly. As you know, in this environment where we have avian flu in bird viruses.

Like many parts of the world, you have different types of viruses in birds and animals. As long as birds and animals come into contact with men, you find that there are new infections coming in. You had an instance in Malaysia of nipah virus which was present in pigs and went to men. So countries have to be very very cautious and careful in their surveillance system to detect any new viruses. And in Hong Kong, we have this system and that is why we pick them up early. So I think the public should be assured and the international community should be assured that we will be on top of this. And if there is any risk of widespread outbreak from human to human, we will not hide these facts. We will tell it as it is. So the international community can be reassured that Hong Kong has an effective system and we have a transparent system. It is not to our advantage, it is not to our benefit to hide any facts in Hong Kong. We are very open with information and we welcome any scrutiny of our evidence and studies.

(Please also refer to the Chinese portion)

End/Friday, February 21, 2003


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