Hong Kong woman contracts bird flu

2010-11-18 08:50

Hong Kong - Hong Kong scrambled on Thursday to contain any outbreak of bird flu after recording its first human case of the illness since 2003, a 59-year-old woman now in a serious condition in hospital.

The government raised the teeming city's avian influenza alert level to "serious", meaning there is a "high risk" of contracting the potentially fatal disease, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said.

Hong Kong recorded its last human case of bird flu in 2003, and had the world's first major outbreak among humans in 1997, when six people died of a then-unknown mutation of the virus.

Millions of poultry were culled in the 1997 outbreak, and the city of seven million people gave a preview of the full-blown panic that struck when the deadly respiratory disease SARS emerged in 2003, killing about 300 people.

The jitters returned last year with an outbreak of swine flu that has so far claimed about 80 lives in Hong Kong.

The 59-year-old woman tested positive for Influenza A (H5), a variant of bird flu, after she was first diagnosed with pneumonia, health officials said. She was listed in a serious condition in a hospital isolation ward.

No contact with live poultry

The woman had recently returned from a trip to mainland China but it was too early to say where she contracted the disease, officials said.

She did not visit farms or have contact with live poultry, an initial investigation found. The woman was admitted to hospital on November 14 after complaining of a persistent fever, cough and blood-stained sputum.

According to Hong Kong health chief York Chow, the government has stepped up poultry inspections at wholesale markets and enhanced infection controls at public hospitals and clinics.

Visits to isolation wards in public hospitals have been banned, except on compassionate grounds, he said. All visitors are required to put on masks and wash hands before entering public hospitals.

Chow said there was no sign so far of human-to-human transmission in the case.

"I think we have to first concentrate on the source of infection from the poultry as origin," he said on Wednesday.

Isolated case

"But we will be concentrating on people who were in contact with her when she showed symptoms and also when she was in Hong Kong.

"The chances of her catching it is most likely on the mainland, but you cannot rule out... Hong Kong," he added.

Microbiologist Leo Poon from the University of Hong Kong said it was likely to be an isolated case and did not pose a serious threat to the city.

"At this stage, the threat is not too big... We believe this is an isolated case," he said.

He also said chances of the virus transmitting between humans were very slim.

The female patient travelled to mainland China between October 23 and November 1 with her husband and daughter, the Department of Health's Centre for Health Protection said in a statement.

Her 60-year-old husband had also suffered from flu-like symptoms but has recovered, it said.

Hong Kong is also closely liaising with mainland Chinese authorities to monitor the situation, a spokesperson for the centre said.