Friday, March 30, 2012

Avian and Swine Flu Danger to Tourists In Hong Kong

Hong Kong is full of these strange little signs.  They say things like "This Door Handle sanitized eight times daily."  The Hong Kong airport was full of them. They turn up in public places like museums, hotels or here in the Hong Kong Cultural Center:

Shipwreck exhibit from the Hong Kong Cultural Center, Kowloon Park, Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center

These signs, and other less noticeable changes, like the absence of chickens, and the presence of health check stations in the Hong Kong airport terminal are Hong Kong's response to recent Avian Flu outbreaks.  But is the Avian Flu or Swine Flu a danger to you as a tourist?  

The answer is; Yes the Avian Flu and Swine Flu dangers to you as a tourist...but probably not right now.

For centuries now, probably thousands of years really, the virus' that cause influenza have been taking advantage of similarities in human bird and pig cell structures to hop back and forth between human and animal hosts.  Virus' have incredibly fast rates of mutation and there's a new crop every year.  In places like Southern China and Hong Kong where it is warm and they take the phrase "animal husbandry" pretty literally, there's a lot of opportunity for influenza to hop out of its host and into humans.  

The question isn't, "Is there an bird flu or swine flu in Hong Kong right now?"  The question is "Is bird or swine influenza spreading like mad in humans right now?"  The answer to this question is usually no.  Both the Hong Kong and China governments keep close tabs on influenza and order massive animal kills if even one person dies of a chicken or swine related illness.  The disaster scenarios that you read about where a virulent flu breaks out and kills millions is certainly possible.  The Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 is estimated to have killed fully 3% of the world's population, a fact that my history teacher totally missed back in high school..  But, science and paranoia have grown a lot since then and today's influenza coming out of Asia has to get through some sturdy defenses first.

As a tourist headed to Hong Kong, the best thing you can do is check out the CDC website or call their hotel for travel alerts in Hong Kong and Southern China.  If a big outbreak of Avian Flu is happening, wiping doorknobs isn't going to help much, but there probably won't be an outbreak of any size happening while you are there.  Take a peek at the CDC website, eat some vitamin C and enjoy Hong Kong.

There's a hidden element to Swine and Bird Influenza that I've always wondered about;  How often do we humans give the flu to birds and swine?  It's a fair question,  we're wiping down doorknobs to keep the animals from infecting us, but ask yourself, who washes their hands before touching a pig.

He sneezed!  He sneezed!  Please, won't some one cover my snout!

Enjoy Hong Kong, but do remember to check the CDC or your hotel for information of Swine Flu and Bird Flu.  Good luck!

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