The recent influenza statistics have alarmed many people. Since the outbreak started eight weeks ago, the government has so far tallied 352 severe cases and 254 deaths.
The latest statistics on mortality show that nearly 95 percent of the deaths were elderly people aged 65 or above. There have been more patients dying of influenza this winter than in the previous four winter flu seasons.
"The main circulating strain this season is H3N2, which tends to affect the elderly who are more likely to have pre-existing underlying illnesses and are at higher risk of developing severe complications from influenza infection," said a spokesman for the Department of Health.
The elderly who recently received flu jabs under the public health-care system are not protected from the circulating H3N2 drifted strain. Targeted vaccines will only be available in April at the earliest, health chief Ko Wing-man said.
Thomas So Man-kit, an infectious disease specialist, pointed out that vaccine production is based on the predictions of health experts.
There are limitations in the manufacturing process and it is normal for it to take months to produce enough vaccines for the community.
"This year, the influenza virus has a remarkable change in composition that the vaccines actually cannot match so the vaccinated population do not have good protection," So said.
"The rest of the population also do not have prior exposure and immunity to the circulating virus. That's why there is a large of number falling sick and thus infecting more people. This pushes up the peak of serious cases and deaths."
Even though you are not able to receive vaccinations in time for the height of the flu season, here are five guidelines you can follow to avoid catching the seasonal flu.
Wear a surgical mask
The Centre for Health Protection recommends people who have developed flu symptoms such as cough, sore throat, runny nose, body pain, fever and headache to put on a surgical mask to prevent spreading the disease.
Those who are in contact with flu patients should also wear one for protection. Remember to discard the mask after a single use.
Gargle with antiseptic mouthwash
Influenza viruses survive in the patients' respiratory droplets and can also be transmitted through the air when they sneeze or cough. "A very effective way to prevent the spread of influenza is to gargle everyday for 30 seconds," said Raman Singh, emerging markets president for Mundipharma.
The pharmaceutical company produces Betadine, a commercial antiseptic wash that claims to kill 99.99 percent of nasty viruses such as Ebola, MERS and SARS.
"Typically, you can gargle three times a day: after you get up, after a meal and before you go to sleep," Singh added.
The product (HK$86) is safe to use for children as young as six years ago and can be purchased at local drug stores.
Wash hands frequently
Flu viruses can survive up to two hours on the skin. They can be passed from an infected person to another after the sufferers touch their eyes, nose or mouth and shake hands with you.
Therefore, even when your hands are not visibly soiled, clean them with soap and use at least 20 seconds to rub your palms, back of hands, fingers and wrists before rinsing under running water.
To make it easier to remember, that's rubbing each area for about five times.
If you prefer alcohol-based hand rub, buy one that contains at least 70 percent alcohol.
Laboratory tests show that the most prevalent types of influenza viruses can survive on the non-porous surfaces for hours.
Some recent scientific studies also suggest that viruses thrive in humid subtropical weather - like Hong Kong's.
Even though flu viruses are relatively feeble outside the body in comparison to gastrointestinal viruses, it never hurts to clean the objects that you always touch - such as stainless steel cooking ware, table tops, faucets, keyboards and door handles - with soap and water to physically remove the germs.
Purchase an air purifier
We spend significantly more time indoors in the winter months. And most people will close the windows in their homes and offices, harboring allergens and influenza viruses in the poorly ventilated rooms.
"Air purifiers can circulate and clean the air in a room several times an hour. They are able to detect and filter small airborne dust particles, pollens, tobacco smoke and chemicals. Certain models which are fitted with an electrostatic chamber or a UV light chamber can also eliminate bacteria and viruses," said Joe Ng Kin-wah, managing director of California Air.
Ng supplies industrial and commercial air purifiers to local clinics, schools and laboratories. His best-seller is the QA-20 (HK$9,000).
His company sold some 3,000 machines in one week during the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong several years ago.
He advised that when you shop for an air purifier, choose standalone models that do not come with humidifying function because those machines are likely to be more efficient.