Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Lessons Learned, 10 Years Later?

Regular hand washing goes a long way in preventing disease yet many don't!
It's been 10 years since severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS gripped Hong Kong when a mainland Chinese doctor infected many people in the Metropole Hotel in Kowloon, who then literally transported the respiratory disease to their home countries including Canada, Singapore, the United States and Taiwan.

The most shocking thing was that doctors did not understand how it was transmitted, and in many cases, health workers themselves contracted the virus and were either seriously ill or died.

And because there was no explanation of how someone could contract SARS, Hong Kong was in a state of panic, since public interaction is so high in a city of 7 million people.

A friend once told me that everyone was terrified, wondering when they got into a taxi if the last passenger had SARS or sitting on the MTR if they were sitting in the seat that was previously occupied by someone with the virus.

Another recalled that as soon as she got home, she stripped off all her clothes, threw them in the washing machine and took a shower before hugging her children.

In 2003 SARS infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong, killing 299. Globally there were 8,096 infections and 774 deaths.

While SARS brought fear to the city, in the end it also brought a sense of community, where people became more polite towards one another because they had managed to survive such a horrific experience. Residents became more aware of their environment, paid more attention to hygiene and courtesy.

However a decade on, a university survey says Hong Kongers have become less vigilant about their hygiene habits.

In a poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong public opinion program, fewer people are wearing face masks when they have a cold or flu and washing their hands regularly -- two actions recommended by disease-control experts to prevent infection.

The poll indicates these bad habits are particularly noticeable among young people.

"SARS has left us for 10 years now and Hong Kongers' awareness has fallen," infectious disease specialist Dr Thomas So Man-kit said, commenting on the results. "But we are still facing threats of various diseases, including new emerging viruses."

While the number of those polled was small at 513 residents aged 25 and over, 65 percent said Hong Kong people in general had reduced their efforts to maintain personal hygiene.

When asked why, 81 percent said "there is no SARS now and no need to be so nervous over common cold and flu". Thirty-nine percent had "forgotten about those personal hygiene measures".

But So said although SARS had not returned, it was important to prevent respiratory infections like influenza.

The survey asked people to compare their habits with 10 years ago.

-- 52 percent wear masks when they have a cold or flu compared to 65 percent a decade ago;

-- 44 percent wash their hands upon returning home and before meals for at least 20 seconds with soap compared with 62 percent 10 years ago;

I can personally attest to observing people's hygiene habits in the office and in public washroom areas. Many only rinse their hands, thinking they are already clean, or if they do wash their hands it is definitely less than 20 seconds with soap.

What happened?

While public washrooms are now equipped with automatic flush functions and water dispensers, there is no excuse not to wash hands without soap. It is the easiest and most cost-effective way to prevent disease, and yet many people still aren't following this habit.

As the HKU public opinion program director Robert Chung Ting-yiu says, there must be more public health and education policies to make residents aware that SARS is not necessarily a one-off event -- that another pandemic can occur, but we can easily prevent it through basic hand washing and hygiene.

Do we need another scare just to wake people up?

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