24 February 2019
Given the population density and small living spaces, viruses can spread quickly and easily in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters
Given the population density and small living spaces, viruses can spread quickly and easily in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Battling the influenza

In January, Hong Kong reached the peak influenza season. Up to 5,000 visits were reported daily at the outpatient emergency rooms in the city’s hospitals. Patients had to sometimes wait as long as 11 hours before they could get to see a doctor at public hospitals.

Internal medical wards had bed occupancy rate of more than 120 percent. The shortage of medical workforce and resources became a worrying crisis.

Influenza is an infectious disease caused by an influenza virus which is usually spread through cough or sneezing. Hong Kong is an overpopulated city where people are packed in small compartments. Viruses can be easily passed around within such short distances.

Common symptoms include high fever, headache, muscle pain, fatigue, runny nose and coughing. These symptoms generally last for a few days. However, influenza can be a serious illness to children under the age of six or elderly people who are aged 60 or above as it might become complicated by pneumonia and breathing difficulty, which could even lead to death.

In response to the threat of pandemic influenza and its complications, everyone should practice good personal hygiene. Avoid going to crowded and poorly ventilated areas. If necessary, put on a surgical mask. Wash hands frequently with soap or hand sanitizers.

Age is not directly associated with one’s health status, but certain functional impairments among the elderly are less noticeable. Influenza viruses may cause frail people pneumonia, affect the functions of other organs such as the heart or kidneys, or induce muscle atrophy. While the infection may not be fatal, it definitely weakens the body.

The elderly are advised to maintain a balanced diet in three daily meals which should be served hot. Each meal should contain no less than 20 grams of protein to avoid the loss of muscles and to strengthen their immunity.

They should wear layers of clothes in cold weather: a heat warmer, a sweater and a cotton outerwear. A hat, a scarf and a pair of mittens are recommended if they are to stay outdoors.

While wearing enough to keep warm, the elderly should not wrap themselves up in far-too-bulky clothing as that may impair easy movement. 

Influenza can cause serious illnesses. High-risk individuals like the elderly are recommended to receive pneumococcal vaccine and influenza vaccine every year. The vaccine this year may not offer a hundred percent prevention against infection but it can at least protect individuals from influenza B viruses and the development of severe flu complications.

Amid the winter flu surge, the Hong Kong government has been accused of poor preparation and arrangements. First of all, local public clinics and early health centers did not provide quick influenza testing services.

Also, the Department of Health and Hospital Authority purchased huge stocks of influenza vaccines, resulting in a shortage of vaccines at private clinics in communities and estates. Many citizens cannot receive medical protection even when they are willing to pay for the flu shots.

The scrambling for vaccines that we have seen this year should have taught the government a lesson about the need for better planning going forward.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb  8

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Registered geriatrician

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