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Thursday, February 5, 2015, 09:00

HK flu epidemic expected to worsen

By Luis Liu in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s flu epidemic would likely deteriorate in the following two weeks and public hospitals would cut non-emergency surgeries where necessary to cope, the city’s health authorities said on Wednesday.

Up to Wednesday evening, 118 people have died in Hong Kong from flu since the beginning of the year. Over 90 percent of victims aged over 65. Another 187 people remain in a critical condition, 155 of them elderly, according Centre for Health Protection (CHP).

One of the latest cases involved a 60-year-old customs officer who suffered multiple organ failure after being infected with the H3N2 flu virus. He died at Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Tuesday.

The epidemic will peak soon as the situation in the Northern Hemisphere stabilizes. The number of cases should fall after Chinese New Year, ending later in March, CHP Controller Leung Ting-hung said.

A third round of official warning letters has also been issued to local schools, advising them to check students’ temperature. Once students are found to be running a fever, the CHP urges them to seek medical treatment immediately and resume classes after they have fully recovered.

The government had “more than enough” medicine stores to offer Hong Kong people, Leung said.

Speaking at a Legislative Council meeting, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man also urged high-risk groups, including the elderly, children and those suffering chronic illness, to seek medical help if they develop flu symptoms.

Ko also rejected accusations that the government was taking a low-key attitude toward the influenza. During the past month, different measures had been taken, including adding more wards in hospitals and giving free flu shots to children and elderly nursing home residents.

Ko said though the overall death rate from flu was below 1 percent, the death rate for those admitted to hospital with flu was 3.5 percent. Among those patients in Intensive Care Units (ICU), the death rate was as high as 50 percent.

Admitting that the flu vaccine was less effective than usual, owing to viruses undergoing genetic changes, Ko said getting vaccinated was still an important precaution to combat the influenza.

He also urged people to wear masks when going to crowded places and attending festive activities, and to always maintain good sanitary standards.

Leo Poon Lit-man, associate professor of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said the current epidemic was a normal phenomenon since influenza is a cyclical disease.

In 2005, more than 1,000 people in the city died from flu, according to Health Authority statistics.

A mutation of the H3N2 influenza made the virus reproduce rapidly in the human body, Poon said.

Although the death toll had already reached over 100 in just a month, a figure likely over the next month to surpass that of SARS in 2003 — which claimed 299 lives in the city — Poon said the situation would not be as bad since the flu is not unprecedented and it is far less virulent.

Another local infectious disease expert Yuen Kwok-yung, chair of infectious diseases at HKU, predicted that the estimated death toll would stand at 300 to 400. However, Yuen said he could see no reason to shut down schools and send workers home in future.

He also warned that some flu patients might not appear to have high fevers. People should judge the state of their illnesses by looking at the symptoms, Yuen added.


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