Border health checks not enough

Editorial | Mary Ma 2 Jan 2020

It's not been an auspicious start to 2020. Taking no chances, the SAR stepped up health checks at the border after reports of atypical pneumonia cases in the mainland stoked memories of the SARS epidemic - a disease so unfortunately linked to the SAR in name as well as reality.

It's right for Secretary for Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee to activate precautionary measures without waiting for further details from mainland authorities to avoid repeating a mistake that eventually led to the deaths of 299 people in Hong Kong in 2003.

The city undoubtedly learned a harsh lesson from that disaster.

Top microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung says Hong Kong is now better prepared than before. Although he has no clear idea of the virus that has so far downed 27 people - with seven seriously ill - in Wuhan, it's reassuring to hear such a respected scientist saying we have better systems in notification, testing and infection control.

I hope the notification system that Yuen has in mind also refers to cross-border notifications and is not limited to frontline medical professionals reporting suspected cases here.

However, it's perplexing to see that the vigilance at the border and within the SAR was only stepped up after Hong Kong media picked up mainland news reports that there was an outbreak of SARS-like pneumonia cases in a marketplace in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

This must have struck like lightning many people concerned about the situation.

First, it appeared that the health minister did not act on the mysterious disease in Wuhan until after the health threat was brought up by Hong Kong media.

Does it mean Chan had not been notified by her counterpart in the mainland or, if she had been notified, should she not have reacted sooner?

Timely cross-border notification is fundamental to the SAR's health safe defense in view of the large number of people coming in from the mainland every day.

It may be ironic to say Hong Kong is blessed with reduced risk because fewer mainlanders are coming to the city these days due to the civil unrest that has gripped Hong Kong for more than six months.

China has a vast territory and, owing to various reasons, it is regularly struck by outbreaks of disease. These include the deadly SARS epidemic in 2003 for which the World Health Organization criticized Beijing for under-reporting the severity and the swine flu that wiped out a third of the country's pig population in the past year.

Recently, Russia also tightened health inspections at its border with China after cases of bubonic plague were reported in Inner Mongolia.

As Hong Kong moves swiftly to step up health measures to screen arrivals for related symptoms at the border, Chan is duty bound to ensure that the notification system as mentioned by one of our top experts goes well beyond the border.

Early warnings and a high level of information disclosure are indispensable parts of our health defense.

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