Hong Kong Steps Up H7N9 Bird Flu Fight as floods of mainland Chinese tourists descend on HK for the Labor Day holiday

Updated April 28, 2013, 3:38 p.m. ET

Hong Kong Steps Up Flu Fight


Hong Kong immigration and hospital officials are stepping up efforts to fend off the spread of H7N9 bird flu, which surfaced outside China for the first time last week, as floods of mainland Chinese tourists descend on Hong Kong for the Labor Day holiday. The government is deploying greater manpower at the border at the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, one of the busiest border crossings in the world, to screen travelers for elevated body temperatures, and tour operators are being urged to monitor the condition of individual tourists. Some 4.2 million people are expected to cross Hong Kong’s borders during the holiday, which runs from April 27 to May 1, most crossing via Shenzhen.

On Friday, government officials grabbed mops and rubber gloves to help scrub down markets in the city, as part of a three-day campaign to promote good hygiene.

To control H7N9 outbreaks, the city has stepped up patrols in poultry markets, Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam said.

Hong Kong has long been ground zero in the fight against infectious disease. In 1997, after bird flu first jumped the species barrier, Hong Kong was the first city to be badly affected. The densely populated city was ravaged by severe acute respiratory syndrome in the 2003 outbreak that killed 299 people locally and affected whole apartment blocks.

Although it isn’t nearly as contagious as SARS—which was spread in certain Hong Kong neighborhoods through plumbing—in some ways, the latest H7N9 outbreak is more worrisome than the H5N1 outbreak that started in 1997, said Malik Peiris, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.

For one, says Mr. Peiris, H7N9 appears to be more easily contracted by humans when they are exposed to diseased birds.

Another challenge is containing the virus’s spread within the bird population, researchers say.

“With this virus, there don’t seem to be any symptoms [for birds],” said Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung. “So it will be very difficult to track.”

For the moment, experts say the risk of a mass outbreak remains limited, given that the virus isn’t easily spread from human to human.

Hong Kong is better equipped to fight an outbreak than ever before. The city’s public hospitals have more than 1,400 isolation beds that allow for swift quarantines.

In 2003, such facilities were extremely limited, said Nelson Lee, a doctor who treated patients at the Prince of Wales Hospital when SARS struck. Scores of workers at that hospital contracted the disease, he recalled, though none succumbed to it.

To protect his family during the SARS outbreak, Dr. Lee moved out of his apartment and lived in self-imposed quarantine for months while treating patients, seeing his wife and young son only once a day through the grille of a metal door when they came to drop off his dinner.

Many other doctors did the same.

The legacy of SARS is evident today in the signs dotting escalator rails and elevator buttons around town that tout how many times a day they are disinfected. In the wake of SARS, the government in 2004 set up a new center focused on disease control, including better surveillance and diagnostic systems.

“In terms of hardware, I don’t worry, and I think that Hong Kong is the best-prepared city in the world,” said Justin Wu of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the doctors on the front lines during the SARS crisis.

But Dr. Wu said he is concerned that when it comes to health-care workers, the city’s public-health system—its first line of defense—is less well-equipped. In the 10 years since SARS, the public hospital system has seen an exodus of many of its most talented workers, said Dr. Wu, because many have been lured away by higher-paying private sector jobs.

In addition to its efforts to improve hospital capacity, the city has tightened poultry controls. Cantonese cooking places a high premium on fresh ingredients, but in recent years, the government has clamped down on the live poultry trade through a buyout program. The number of vendors selling live chickens has shrunk to around 100 from over 800.

The city currently imports 7,000 live chickens daily from mainland China, and it regularly tests 3% of such imports for avian influenza. In recent weeks, it has also begun spot checks that allow for more rapid testing.

Hong Kong has special teams to collect and test dead wild birds for bird flu; it has tested over 33,000 such birds in the past decade.

As of Saturday night, there were 120 confirmed cases of H7N9 in mainland China, mostly concentrated in the eastern coastal regions,with 23 deaths. Last week, the virus spread for the first time outside the mainland, with one case diagnosed in Taiwan.

Hong Kong officials say they are ready to halt live poultry imports or cull birds if needed, as Shanghai has already done, to prevent a mass outbreak.

The city has periodically conducted such campaigns since its initial bird flu outbreak in 1997. Last year, it culled hundreds of exotic birds at a market beloved by bird fanciers after a strain of H5N1 was detected.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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