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Is Hong Kong prepared if avian flu explodes?

Hong Kong knows the risks of bird flu perhaps better than any other city in the world.  But would it be prepared if  the threat of avian flu explodes into a pandemic? NBC News Charles Hadlock reports from Hong Kong.  
A Hong Kong government worker sprays the inside of a truck at a poultry wholesale market where the bird flu virus was found in late 1997.Tommy Cheng / AFP-Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

HONG KONG — This city, where avian influenza was first discovered in 1997 when it killed 18 people, knows the risks of bird flu perhaps better than any other city in the world.

Today, Hong Kong may be the world’s best-prepared city to deal with the next outbreak of the deadly virus.

The dangers are all around. Bird flu has been transmitted to humans in nearby Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.

In Jakarta, health officials said Thursday that two young men, one of whom died last week, had tested positive for the bird flu virus. The World Heath Organization says that since 2003 there have been at least 116 human cases of bird flu, 60 of them fatal.

Health officials say almost all of the human cases involve people who handle sick or infected birds, mostly chickens raised in flocks on countless Asian farms. Authorities in Jakarta recently discovered the virus in chickens that appear to be healthy, an ominous sign that the bug may become harder to detect. Bird flu has been reported in migrating birds as far away as northern China and Russia.

One of experts' greatest fears is that the bird flu virus will mutate to become easily passed between humans, triggering a pandemic.

Focused on prevention
So what would Hong Kong do if avian influenza explodes into a pandemic? 

Much of the Hong Kong government’s plan focuses on prevention. The government has implemented a three-tier alert system similar to the terror alert charts used in the United States with three stages: “Alert,” “Serious” and “Emergency.” Earlier this year, as the number of avian flu cases mounted in Asia, the Hong Kong government activated the “Alert” level.

Hong Kong immediately began a proactive awareness campaign aimed at travelers. Health information pamphlets are distributed to airline passengers flying to or from the infected regions. On flights bound for Indonesia, passengers hear not only flight safety instructions, but heath messages concerning the influenza outbreak.

In-bound travelers are electronically checked for fever. Sick travelers are detained at the airport and questioned about their contact with poultry.

Are stockpiled drugs enough?
The Hong Kong government is also stockpiling millions of doses of the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, presumably to give to citizens during the “Serious” or “Emergency” stage. A quarantine of the city’s six million residents, though not specified in the plan, is not out of the question.

Above all, Hong Kong promises swift reporting of bird flu cases and prompt destruction of infected flocks. Those measures, experts say, helped contain the bird flu outbreak of 1997.

But is it enough? Is it too late? Fall has arrived and migrating birds — some possibly infected with the virus — are already on their annual migration.