Flu outbreak and air pollution: Little cheer as Hong Kong welcomes CNY

A Chinese New Year display in a Hong Kong shopping mall. In anticipation of more cases over the holiday, more than 300 doctors will be on standby in public hospitals, while public outpatient clinics are being equipped to handle an extra 1,000 cases d
A Chinese New Year display in a Hong Kong shopping mall. In anticipation of more cases over the holiday, more than 300 doctors will be on standby in public hospitals, while public outpatient clinics are being equipped to handle an extra 1,000 cases daily, said Hong Kong health-care authorities. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Unremitting flu outbreak and worsening air pollution cast pall over festivities

The double whammy of a persistent flu outbreak and "serious" air pollution is casting a pall over Chinese New Year festivities in Hong Kong starting tonight.

As Hong Kongers gather for reunion dinners and go visiting in the coming days, the health-care industry is preparing for a potential spike in the number of flu cases.

This is even as the city reported 18 flu-related deaths in the past 24 hours as of noon yesterday - the highest number seen in a single day since the current outbreak began early last month. This brings the total number of deaths to 228, though the toll is still far from the height of a reported 1,000 or so fatalities in 2005.

In anticipation of more cases over the holiday, more than 300 doctors will be on standby in public hospitals, while public outpatient clinics are being equipped to handle an extra 1,000 cases daily, said health-care authorities.

The concern is that crowded trains, buses and homes make it easier for the transmission of viruses. The high number of travellers in and out of Hong Kong is also a worry, said virologist Malik Peiris, who is the director of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to get hold of doses of vaccine meant for southern hemisphere countries such as Australia, in a bid to mitigate against the ineffectiveness of the earlier vaccine, which was not a good match for the H3N2 strain that eventually dominated, Prof Peiris added.

The southern hemisphere vaccine is usually available in April. Health Secretary Ko Wing Man said the earliest the city can get it would be in May or June.

Yesterday, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) called a meeting of its scientific committee on vaccine-preventable diseases to discuss the situation.

CHP controller Leung Ting Hung said the "peak period" of the outbreak will last for some time, while committee chairman Chow Chun Bong warned that the highest-risk groups are the elderly aged 65 and above, as well as those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and lung disease.

Exacerbating the situation is an ongoing wave of air pollution, with the Environmental Protection Department warning on Monday that it could reach "serious" levels. The air quality in the past week, according to the Real-time Air Quality Index used in Hong Kong, has ranged from "unhealthy" to "very unhealthy", with smog shrouding Hong Kong's famous skyline.

Said Prof Peiris: "Air pollution damages lungs and in combination, both the flu outbreak and the bad air will aggravate (the discomfort from) the other."

Despite the negative news, Hong Kongers are not changing their Chinese New Year customs - for now. Hotpot restaurants, where the use of communal cutlery has made a return after the Sars epidemic in 2003, reported "business as usual".

xueying@sph.com.sg