Health

Hong Kong to add mystery respiratory illness to reportable diseases

An unidentified form of viral pneumonia will be added to an official list of diseases that medical practitioners are required to report to the government, Hong Kong's health chief says.

Disease has sent 59 people to the hospital in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan

Secretary for Food and Health, Prof. Sophia Chan, speaks about response measures to prevent and control a mysterious infectious disease. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

Hong Kong's health chief said Tuesday that a respiratory illness whose cause remains unknown will be added to an official list of diseases that medical practitioners are required to report to the government.

The disease — an unidentified form of viral pneumonia — has sent 59 people to the hospital in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan, in central Hubei province. As of Sunday, seven were in critical condition, while the rest were stable. Municipal authorities have ruled out SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed 700 people in 2002 and 2003.

In Hong Kong, a total of 15 patients were being treated Sunday for symptoms including fever and respiratory infection after recent visits to Wuhan. It is not clear whether they have the same illness as the Wuhan patients.

Speaking at a news conference, the health chief, Sophia Chan, said the "severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent" will be added to a list of reportable infectious diseases in Hong Kong's Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance.

The regulation enables the government to take stronger measures against the spread of certain diseases, such as tuberculosis and chicken pox. Actions under the ordinance could include enforcing quarantines or limiting the movement of people who are suspected to have infections.

"Under the amendment, medical practitioners will have to report suspected cases as well as carry out appropriate investigations and follow-ups to the Center for Health Protection under the Department of Health," Chan said.

The U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan issued a health alert Tuesday for the pneumonia outbreak, warning travellers to Wuhan to avoid animals, as well as animal markets and products.

Dr. Gauden Galea, WHO Representative to China, said public health officials in China "remain focused on continued contact tracing, conducting environmental assessments at the wholesale market, and investigations to identify the pathogen causing the outbreak."

WHO is closely monitoring the event and communicating with counterparts in China, Galea added in a emailed statement.

Precautions for travellers

Currently, there are no suspected cases in Canada or involving Canadians overseas, Anna Maddison, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is keeping in close contact with her provincial and territorial colleagues, the agency said. PHAC officials are also in close contact with federal partners, the World Health Organization and other international partners.

Maddison pointed to systems to identify, prevent and control the spread of infectious diseases including a global public health intelligence monitoring system that scans the world's open source media

"No matter the destination, travellers should always take precautions against respiratory and other illnesses while travelling, and seek medical attention if they become ill."

During their trip, Canadian travellers to Wuhan city are encouraged to:

  • Avoid high-risk areas such as farms, live animal markets, and areas where animals may be slaughtered.
  • Avoid contact with animals (alive or dead), including pigs, chickens, ducks and wild birds.
  • Avoid surfaces with animal droppings or secretions on them.

Travellers should also wash their hands often, and practise proper cough and sneeze etiquette.

People are encouraged to tell their health-care providers about their travel if they become ill after returning to Canada. 

Toronto Pubic Health said the overall risk to residents is considered very low.

"Given that Toronto Pearson International Airport is an international travel hub, Toronto Public Health is actively monitoring this situation, along with provincial and national health agencies," the department added in a release.

With files from CBC News

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