Hong Kong struggling with flu outbreak as death toll climbs

Hong Kong is battling a particularly virulent flu epidemic this year that has claimed 145 lives so far and put its public health-care system under much strain.

With at least one more month of the flu season - which usually stretches from January to March - to go, the death toll already exceeds last year's total of 136 fatalities, though it remains some way from the peak of more than 1,000 deaths in 2005.

This year's "winter surge" comes amid a confluence of factors that makes tackling the outbreak tougher than before.

A key weapon in the anti-flu arsenal is missing, due to a mismatch in the annual vaccine developed by the World Health Organisation and the H3N2 variant that eventually dominated.

Professor Malik Peiris, director of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong, said the vaccine is effective against less than 5 per cent of the flu strains to hit Hong Kongers this year.

The continuing avian flu outbreak across the border also adds to anxiety that a new, merged virus could emerge.

Hong Kong Food and Health Secretary Ko Wing Man said on Sunday that this year's flu strain could cross paths with the H7N9 bird flu in mainland China. Two new cases in Guangdong were reported over the weekend, adding to a total of 564 human cases in the country.

"If a person contracts two viruses, a gene reassortment is likely to happen," said Dr Ko. "The worry is this could lead to a more contagious and vicious virus."

The city's public health-care system, meanwhile, is creaking under the pressure. Some 90 per cent of patients use it but it is serviced by only 40 per cent of all doctors. It is estimated to be understaffed by some 200 doctors.

Beds are in shortage too. Hospital Authority statistics yesterday showed that the 16 public hospitals with A&E facilities to treat flu cases are operating at an average occupancy rate of 110 per cent.

Those who have died tend to be the elderly or people with existing illnesses, said Professor David Hui, who heads the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The situation has resulted in some legislators blaming the authorities for not doing enough, while some parents want schools closed and cleaned.

But the doctors warned against panic. Hong Kong's experience as the epicentre of the Sars epidemic in 2003 - when 299 died - makes Hong Kongers "more prone to over-reacting", said Prof Hui. "We do have more fatal cases, but if you look at the percentage of deaths over the number of cases, it is similar to previous years'."

xueying@sph.com.sg