Healthcare in Hong Kong is excellent by international standards, especially compared to most Asian cities. In fact, the average life expectancy is higher than the United States. However, the city has its fair share of health issues and it is not unusual for newcomers to find themselves falling ill more frequently while acclimatizing to their new environment.
History of Diseases in Hong Kong
Hong Kong, in spite of its excellent health system periodically faces outbreaks of epidemics and diseases which at times can be life threatening. The most recent such outbreak was in November 2010 when an single case of H5N1 avian influenza (“bird flu”) was reported from Hong Kong. The WHO states that most visitors to HK are not threatened by avian influenza since it is transmitted to humans only if the person has had direct contact with infected live poultry or has had intimate contact with family members affected by the disease. The WHO goes on to advice that visitors to Hong Kong should guard against avian flu by avoiding exposure to live poultry including visits to poultry farms and open markets with live birds.
Visitors should also be careful not to touch any surfaces that might be contaminated with feces from poultry or other animals; and further should make sure all poultry and egg products are thoroughly cooked. Even though a vaccine for avian flu has been developed, it is still not commercially available and human influenza vaccine is not effective against avian flu. If, however, you do develop symptoms associated with avian influenza you are advised to seek immediate medical help.
An earlier incidence of H5N1 avian influenza (“bird flu”) took place in 1997 which saw the disease spread to humans and result in six deaths. The outbreak in 1997 was contained by the mass slaughter of poultry as all the cases had been due to contact with infected poultry.
Perhaps the most notorious epidemic ever associated with Hong Kong was SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This outbreak occurred in March 2003 and resulted in 296 deaths and 1755 cases. This mysterious virus was linked to the coronavirus and it spread through person to person contact. The virus was brought to Hong Kong by a visitor from mainland China and it soon spread to other foreigners who went on to carry it to other countries.
SARS caused much damage in the HKSAR and resulted in a mass exodus of expats from the territory. During the SARS outbreak hygiene levels improved dramatically in the HKSAR as much of the population resorted to wearing face masks, continuously washing their hands and cleaning their homes with diluted bleach. These changes were brought about by SARS and they continue to be practiced until today.
The US centers for disease control advices travelers to Hong Kong to receive all routine vaccines. These include vaccines for influenza, chickenpox (or varicella), polio, measles/mumps/rubella (MMR), and diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT). These are typically given from childhood and throughout life. If you are not up to date with them before you move to Hong Kong, or do not have records of the vaccinations, you may be required to get them. These vaccines are advised for both adults and children. The international schools require immunization records upon the registration of your children. If you are traveling from an area infected with diseases such as cholera or yellow fever, inoculation records against these may also be requested by the immigration authorities.
The CDC advises that travelers to Hong Kong should visit either their personal physician or a travel health clinic four to eight weeks before leaving for Hong Kong.
The recommended vaccinations for Hong Kong are as follows:
The vaccine is recommended for all travelers who are over one year of age. It should be given at least two weeks before departure. A booster should be given 6-12 months later to upgrade long-term immunity.
As Hong Kong is classified as an area with intermediate to high levels of endemic HBV transmission, Hepatitis B vaccine is recommended as well.
Recommended for all travelers except pregnant women in their first trimester.
Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)
Two doses of this vaccine is recommended for all travelers born after 1956, if not previously given.
Should be given to all travelers who have not had it within the last 10 years.
Thetyphoid vaccine is especially recommended if you are going to be living and working in the rural areas of the New Territories.
This vaccine against Japanese Encephalitis is recommended if you plan to visit rural farming areas.
Some typhoid outbreaks have been traced to fish that were kept in tanks with tainted water, so fresh seafood must be selected with caution.
Each year there are approximately 40-50 cases of dengue fever, usually during the Hong Kong summer, which is typically between the months of June to August. Use mosquito repellent to minimize potential exposure.
Travelers’ diarrhea can be contracted in Hong Kong and can be avoided by ensuring that only clean water is consumed and that food is cooked and stored properly. Some people who suffer from diarrhea may also contract Giardia, a parasite that takes advantage of your weakened health and causes fatigue and nausea. Giardia cannot be vaccinated against but can be prevented by maintaining a good level of hygiene and washing your hands on a regular basis.
In addition to having the appropriate vaccinations and maintaining good hygiene, there are a number of steps you can take to minimize any health problems:
Air Pollution: Pollution is a constant gripe with many expats in Hong Kong. The city’s pollution emissions are reportedly three times that of New York City and four times that of London. Although there are local anti-pollution laws in place, the air quality continues to decline in the absence of cross-border regulations in the nearby manufacturing hub of South China. Upper respiratory infections, allergies and asthma are common illnesses, and particularly at risk are the elderly, children and those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions. Health experts generally recommend the use of air filters and dehumidifiers, and regular cleaning of air-conditioners.
Water: Hong Kong’s drinking water is treated and made safe to drink from the tap, but in some old buildings, the condition of the pipes may affect the quality of the water. Boiling and filtering the tap water are sensible precautions. If you live in an old building, opt for bottled water, which can be easily purchased from all supermarkets or delivered to your home. For delivery, contact Natural Springs Australia (http://www.naturalsprings.hk), Bonaqua (http://www.bonaqua.com.hk).
Food: Milk is pasteurized and dairy products are safe for consumption. Local produce is generally safe to consume, though fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed to remove any trace of pesticides or chemicals. Many street vendors, who sell a variety of cooked snacks, are not licensed by the health authorities, so it is safer not to buy food from them.