HK's virus figures don't add up

Editorial | Mary Ma 15 Jan 2020

Reports out of China indicate that the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan seems to have been brought under control.

Since the wet market - notorious among locals for selling wild-animal meat for human consumption - was closed by health authorities, no new infection has been reported. I hope the reports are correct.

According to Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, the previously unknown virus is 80 percent similar to that of SARS which killed 299 people here in 2003.

While Wuhan said the virus has infected 41 local residents, I find it amazing that not a single case - including suspected ones - has been reported elsewhere in the mainland. This is despite the fact that a woman flying all the way from Wuhan to Thailand was diagnosed as having been infected with the virus and more than 70 suspected cases were reported in Hong Kong.

After the mainland shared genetic findings of the new virus with the World Health Organization, it should not be difficult for scientists here and elsewhere to develop a tool to make fast and accurate diagnoses.

But it is baffling to hear Thailand saying it has identified a confirmed case after a 61-year-old woman fell ill after flying in from Wuhan.

It is baffling also because we do not know if the woman had visited the now-closed market or if she was contracted the virus through human-to-human infection - especially as a World Health Organization senior official warned that human-to-human infection continued to be a probability.

It is important that Thailand releases more information on this.

If judged on figures alone, the situation in Hong Kong undoubtedly would have been far more serious than at the Wuhan epicenter.

This doesn't make any sense at all, does it?

Health authorities in Hong Kong should be criticized for the conception - or, more accurately, misconception.

The media here must also share some of the responsibility for failing to do their best to clarify the misconception.

The public should be forgiven for questioning the numbers after seeing media reports painting a more favorable picture of Wuhan than the SAR in relation to the disease.

Wuhan officials said the city has 41 confirmed cases - without telling its citizens how many cases were suspected. Hong Kong officials at the Health Bureau, on the other hand, were quick to tell us how many cases were suspected - but were forgetful to reduce the figures after establishing that the cases were not linked to the new virus.

That means the suspected cases are continuing to pile up even though none has been confirmed so far.

If the situation is to be reflected more accurately, surely a rolling update should be made to remove all negative cases from the table.

Hong Kong is in the middle of the flu season. Perhaps Health Secretary Sophia Chan Siu-chee should have declared all serious flu cases as suspected if everyone was expected to turn a blind eye to inaccurate numerical updates.

Vigilance is important. But provision of accurate information is equally vital as the public plays a key role in disease control.

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