Hong Kong on high alert for bird flu next door in China

Hong Kong is on standby as a new strain of bird flu continues to infect people in mainland China and the city is stepping up its surveillance of both poultry and humans to ensure the cases stay on China's side of the border.

In eastern China, 24 people have been infected and 7 of those have died

A vendor packs his chickens at a poultry market in Nanjing, China. Hong Kong is stepping up its surveillance of live poultry imports from mainland China to guard against a new bird flu strain. (Reuters/China Daily)

Hong Kong is stepping up its surveillance of people and poultry in response to the growing number of cases of avian flu in neighbouring mainland China.

Enhanced poultry testing measures, including more frequent farm inspections and bigger sample sizes, were announced following an emergency meeting over the weekend with mainland Chinese, Macau and Hong Kong officials.

Hong Kong, which recently marked the 10-year anniversary of the SARS pandemic that killed 299 people in the city, also intends to do faster testing for the H7N9 virus in live poultry imports at the border control point with China.

The secretary for food and health, Ko Wing-man, toured the Cheung Sha Wan wholesale poultry market Monday morning and told reporters the enhanced and rapid testing would begin Thursday. Live imports will be held at the market and only allowed for sale after the test results come back negative, he said. Thirty samples from every 1,000 birds will be tested and the results will be returned within four hours.

Hong Kong's government has said it considers the risk of human-to-human transmission of the virus to be low but it has still activated its preparedness plan for an influenza pandemic, and it is currently implementing measures at the "alert" level. Ko said it would be elevated to the "serious" level if any poultry tests positive or any human cases of the H7N9 virus are found.

"At the same time, we will also carry out partial or total culling of live poultry in Hong Kong as well as suspending the import of live poultry into Hong Kong," he said. Ko said there are adequate biosecurity measures in place at the wholesale poultry market to prevent bird-to-bird transmission.

The health department is assuring people that it will be transparent and will share information about any cases of the illness. That promise is borne out of the legacy of SARS, when officials in Hong Kong and China were accused of hiding the true severity of the respiratory outbreak that infected more than 1,750 in Hong Kong alone.

Now the government posts news releases online with details about the cases in China, details about suspected cases in Hong Kong, letters and guidelines for health-care workers and the public, and other information that is updated on a daily basis.

Random temperature checks

In addition to stepped up poultry surveillance, Hong Kong has also increased its public health surveillance by sending more staff to immigration control points to conduct random temperature checks with hand-held devices. Hong Kong also uses infrared body temperature scanning equipment, technology that was bought in the wake of SARS.

Hospitals are increasing infection control measures and the health department sent a team of experts to Shanghai to meet with their counterparts so they can learn how the illness is being treated there.

Ko said Hong Kong has the capacity to handle a pandemic.

"After the outbreak of SARS in 2003, the public hospitals have been gradually building up their capacity for isolation facilities," he said last week. "Up to this moment, there are a total of 1,400 isolation beds in the Hospital Authority. This is in line with our strategy to identify and isolate suspected cases early and carry out rapid testing as soon as possible."

The current number of isolation beds is double what it was during the SARS crisis.

No cases of the new strain of the influenza virus have been detected in Hong Kong. A seven-year-old girl who had recently travelled to areas of mainland China with confirmed cases and was experiencing symptoms was isolated at a hospital, but tests came back negative. She had stayed at a farm with poultry during her travels with her family.

A 15-month-old baby who was also admitted to hospital after experiencing symptoms after a visit to a mainland poultry farm also tested negative and is in stable condition.

The virus is believed to have originated in pigeons, and it has made the jump to humans. So far 24 people in eastern China have been infected and of those seven have died. Officials don’t believe there has been any human-to-human transmission.

Hong Kong's government is asking the public to be vigilant and is advising residents who have recently travelled to China, particularly to Shanghai, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to wear facemasks and seek medical attention if they experience fever or other flu symptoms. The public is also being told to avoid direct contact with poultry and birds.