Response to Infectious Disease Emergencies – Hong Kong’s Experience

Speaker: Dr. Thomas TSANG, Acting Controller, CHP/DH

Of different kinds of emergencies and disasters, infectious disease outbreaks have unique characteristics. Unlike plane crashes, they typically unfold over weeks and months, spreading across people and places. Their effects are frequently felt beyond health and they affect people’s ways of living. Above all, they induce a sense of fear and vulnerability in the public and make public reactions difficult to gauge.

​The global outbreaks of SARS and more recently, avian influenza, have sparked unprecedented international attention to infectious disease emergencies. Common challenges facing many countries include the development and execution of preparedness plans, institutional capacity for emergency management in the health sector, collaboration among partner agencies to optimize the use of limited resources and coordinate collective efforts, and the provision of systematic and reliable public health information on emergencies. .

​In Hong Kong, infectious disease emergencies such as SARS and avian influenza are handled under a preparedness and response plan with three tiers or levels. Each response level prescribes a clear command structure and a set of measures to be executed by various Government bureaux and departments. Major public health elements to deal with infectious disease emergencies include disease surveillance, case investigation, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, prophylaxis and treatment, infection control, port health measures, interagency collaboration, and risk communication. Besides having a comprehensive preparedness plan, regular exercises and drills are conducted in Hong Kong to test various components of the plan.

​No infectious disease emergency or disaster can be handled effectively by Government alone. Open, timely and effective risk communication to the media and the public is now widely acknowledged to play a key role in infectious disease emergencies. Furthermore, considerable efforts have been devoted in Hong Kong to involve business enterprises and build surge capacity in the medical and essential services sector. This is indispensable to maintain basic societal functions and business continuity.

​Hong Kong’s preparedness against pandemic influenza has been judged to be among the best in the world. Nonetheless, preparedness activities are dynamic and they constantly change with new scientific developments and public health practices. Maintaining the momentum and staying on top is a challenge for all of us.