145 deaths this year as deadly flu bug hits Hong Kong

Hong Kongers urged to donate blood, practise good hygiene amid outbreak

From petitioning people to donate blood, to reminding them of good hygiene habits, Hong Kong is trying to tackle the flu outbreak that has killed nearly 150 people this year.

That is more than the 136 flu fatalities through all of last year.

The Hong Kong Red Cross is appealing for people to donate blood, as demand has increased.

The authorities and doctors are also stepping up calls for those with flu symptoms to seek anti-viral therapy quickly, while urging the population to take precautions, such as washing their hands more frequently.

As of yesterday, 145 people had died in this year's flu outbreak.

"There is no doubt that the outbreak is much bigger than usual because it is a different variant affecting the population," said Professor Malik Peiris, director of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

One key reason is that the annual flu vaccine is effective for less than 5 per cent of Hong Kongers hit by the flu this year.

This is even lower than the 23 per cent protected by the jab in the United States.

This, in turn, compares poorly with the 10 per cent to 60 per cent range of the previous decade.

The vaccine was developed by the World Health Organisation before the variant of the H3N2 strain emerged. So, while it covers those who have been infected with the strains of previous years, it does not protect those with the new H3N2 variant.

As the Hong Kong flu season arrives later - after the November to January flu season in the US and other parts of the northern hemisphere - H3N2 would have developed and had a stronger grip, he explained.

"So by the time the virus reaches Hong Kong, more than 95 per cent of those infected are infected by the new strain."

Hong Kong's population density is another reason why the city has been hit hard compared with other cities along the same latitude, such as Taipei.

The flu season usually hits Hong Kong from January to March, and the concern now is over how much longer it will last. There is a "distinct possibility" it will extend to April or even May, warned Hong Kong Food and Health Secretary Ko Wing Man.

For now, the authorities are "doubling our effort in sourcing vaccines", said Dr Ko.

"Hopefully, the vaccine could arrive in April to help us in preventing an excessive outbreak in summer this year."

The worst-case scenario is if the winter and summer flu seasons - the latter usually begins in July or August - merge, as has happened in previous years.

Much will depend on the weather, said Professor David Hui of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "If it warms up a bit, the virus may become less active."

xueying@sph.com.sg