"Serious" response level under Government's Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic stood down

     The Government today (June 12) lowered the response level of the Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic from "Serious" to "Alert".

     The response level was raised to "Serious" upon the detection of the first confirmed case of human infection with avian influenza A(H7N9) imported from the Mainland on December 2, 2013. Hong Kong has so far recorded 10 confirmed cases, which are all imported cases. The latest case was confirmed on April 13. The surveillance system of the local public and private hospitals has not detected any new case in the past two months.

     As regards poultry, a number of samples from a batch of imported live poultry were confirmed as H7 avian influenza positive on January 27. Since then, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department have not detected H7 or H5 avian influenza virus on any environmental or poultry sample collected in Hong Kong under their routine surveillance mechanism.

     After a meeting with infectious disease experts, the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr Ko Wing-man, said today that the Steering Committee on Serious Response Level under the Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic had recently conducted risk assessments on the latest situation of human infection of avian influenza A(H7N9). Taking into consideration the expertsˇ¦ views, the response level was lowered from "Serious" to "Alert" according to the factors set out in the Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic.

     "Although the response level has been lowered to 'Alert', the relevant departments, including the Department of Health (DH) and the Hospital Authority (HA), will remain vigilant. The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the DH will continue to maintain liaison with the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as the Mainland and overseas health authorities, to closely monitor and exchange information on the latest developments and situation with regard to any outbreak of avian influenza A (H7N9) and other new flu viruses. Meanwhile, the monitoring of suspected cases in public and private hospitals as well as the implementation of infectious control measures at boundary control points will be kept in place," said Dr Ko.

     "We anticipate that sporadic cases may continue to be found in the Mainland and our neighbouring areas in the coming few months. The Government will conduct risk assessments in accordance with the Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic and WHO's recommendations so as to adjust our prevention and control strategy. In addition, response measures will be enhanced to get prepared for the risk posed by the winter peak season of influenza and other infectious diseases including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)," he said.

     The steering committee also reviewed the Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic and considered that the plan had been operating smoothly in general. Making reference to past experience, the CHP recommended to continue with the provision of 5-day presumptive treatment with Tamiflu (oseltamivir) for close contacts in avian influenza A(H7N9) confirmed cases. Moreover, the quarantine duration can be shortened to completion of the 5-day presumptive treatment with Tamiflu (oseltamivir) or 10 days after last exposure to the confirmed case, whichever is earlier.

     Meanwhile, the HA and the DH will also strengthen their clinical and infection control measures for infectious diseases, including the introduction of additional Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machines, enhancing the surveillance mechanism for "early notification, early isolation and early detection" and improving facilities in the quarantine camp.

     In addition, the latest version of the Preparedness Plan for Influenza Pandemic (2014) has been uploaded to the webpage of the CHP at www.chp.gov.hk/en/view_content/24244.html. This plan is an updated version based mainly on the framework of the previous plan.

     Regarding imported live poultry, when the wholesale poultry market resumed operation on February 19, the Government decided to further suspend the import of live poultry from the Mainland for four months. This decision came in response to requests by the public, members of the Legislative Council and the local poultry trade for the Government to look into possible arrangements to help avoid causing disruption to the operation and continued supply of local live poultry, especially in case of detection of H7 avian influenza virus in imported live poultry in future.

     Having evaluated various options, the Government decided to establish a check-point for local live chickens at the Government farm in Ta Kwu Ling. According to this plan, when the import of live poultry from the Mainland resumes, the Government will keep the existing arrangement of allowing delivery of imported live poultry already tested in the Mainland (thus bearing official animal health certificates) to the wholesale market, pending the results of tests conducted in Hong Kong. In the event of an avian influenza incident, appropriate measures will be implemented according to the established contingency plan to contain the risk of avian influenza, including culling of the potentially infected poultry and closure of the wholesale poultry market. In future, during the closure of the wholesale poultry market, and subject to confirmation that local poultry have not been affected by avian influenza, local poultry may be delivered to retail outlets via the checkpoint at the Government farm in Ta Kwu Ling. This would help maintain the supply of local live poultry to the market.

     Dr Ko stressed that the main objective of the above measures is to ensure the continued supply of live poultry in Hong Kong as far as possible and reduce the possible impact on the trade in case of an avian influenza incident. According to the latest estimate by the relevant works department, works on the major facilities at the check-point in Ta Kwu Ling (including electricity and water supply, waste water treatment and sewerage system) are nearly completed.

     "In terms of the readiness of relevant facilities, the Government is prepared for the resumption of import of live poultry from the Mainland, which is expected to be before the end of June. The Government has been discussing the relevant arrangements with the Mainland authorities and the local trade on imported live poultry. However, the importation of live poultry from the Mainland is basically a commercial decision of the trade, and specific arrangements such as the exact date of import resumption and quantity are to be confirmed by the trade. The Hong Kong Government and the relevant Mainland authorities will continue to liaise with the trade," Dr Ko said.

     The steering committee has also conducted a comprehensive review on the existing surveillance on poultry as well as preventive and control measures against avian influenza, agreeing that the Government and the local live poultry industry, together with the Mainland inspection and quarantine authorities and poultry farms supplying Hong Kong over the past years have built up a resilient and stringent system for the surveillance, prevention and control of avian influenza. The relevant arrangements have been working well and the risk of avian influenza in Hong Kong at present is still considered low. The Government will keep on assessing the risk and enhancing the surveillance on avian influenza as necessary to safeguard public health.

     "However, there is no system that can attain zero risk. Occasionally we will still encounter avian influenza cases, which may pose threat to public health, exert impacts on the community including the poultry trade and bring anxiety and worries to citizens, at a considerable cost to society on the whole. Indeed, the biggest risk of avian influenza infection by humans is contact with infected live poultry," Dr Ko said.

     "Considering from the perspective of public health, we should consider whether Hong Kong, being densely populated with scarce land resources, should continue with practices of the close contact between human and poultry. The Food and Health Bureau will engage a consultant to study and make recommendation on whether live poultry sales should be maintained in Hong Kong."

     Dr Ko also reminded members of the public to stay highly alert and maintain good personal and environmental hygiene even though the Government has lowered the response level to "Alert".  As the summer is a peak season for tourism, he appealed to the public to avoid contact with wild poultry or animals when travelling, in particular in those places with a history of infection cases, for the sake of personal and family health.

Ends/Thursday, June 12, 2014
Issued at HKT 21:26