Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hong Kong: swine flu prepardedness/bio-security

If you lived hereabouts during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) episode in the spring of 2003, you'll know how much life changed. You'll also remember how paranoid people became:

the run on the supermarkets followed by a text message from the government to all mobile phone users saying any claim the borders were to be closed was false;
the adoption of the habit of using a house key to press the keyboards on ATMs and buttons on lifts;
the pros and cons of empty buses, shops, offices and restaurants;
the seductive and sexual allure of surgical masks;
the forced, unpaid leave;
the fact of expat families fleeing;
the doctors, nurses and ancillary medical technicians themselves struck down. . . and what would happen if hospital staff took total fright and did not turn up for work?

Fun fact: Mister B had reason to visit an outpatients department during SARS . . . the doctor was wearing a disposable full-length surgical gown, head gear, and a surgical mask. Plus one of those full-face, see-through plastic visors. Anyway, he looked like Dustin Hoffman in that ebola movie. He may also have been wearing those disposable surgical gloves.

Just to be sure, the doctor's office window was wide open and the air-con set to full blast. Surreal.

In all, there were 1,755 cases and 299 people died. That's a 17% death rate, nearly one in five. Oh, and early treatment procedures resulted in some survivors becoming permanently damaged . . .

Six years later:

The lessons learned from SARS did not go to waste in Hong Kong. While Mexico struggles to confirm cases of swine flu and sends samples to the United States, Hong Kong is already performing swift genetic tests on patient samples and will have laboratories doing so at six local hospital by Thursday. Tens of thousands of doctors and nurses, including retirees and those with medical training who have moved to other occupations, are tracked on databases and ready to be mobilized.

Contingency plans are ready to keep public transport, electricity, food supplies, telecommunications and other vital services running even if large numbers of people fall ill. And at a time when many hospitals in the United States are already at full capacity and keep few extra beds in reserve, Hong Kong has 1,400 beds in respiratory isolation units, mostly built over the past six years for fear that bird flu or SARS would become a serious problem, and 15 times as many beds as the territory needs on an everyday basis.

For a population of seven million people, Hong Kong has stockpiled 20 million treatment courses of Tamiflu, a medicine to which the new swine flu virus has not yet developed resistance. Hong Kong also has Asia’s best-known flu specialists and extensive research labs that were expanded in response to fears of SARS or a long-feared pandemic of bird flu, which is caused by a different influenza virus from swine flu.

Government lawyers are also moving quickly, carrying out all the procedures on Monday to make swine flu a disease for which health professionals are required by law to notify the authorities of any suspected case. The Hong Kong government also has broad and detailed legal powers to quarantine possible cases and suspend a range of civil liberties in order to track down anyone who has been in contact with a carrier of a communicable disease; many other countries, including the United States, are still debating how to handle legal issues during a possible pandemic.
Full text here: NYT

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