Department of Health urges public to remain vigilant as winter brings increased respiratory infections

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4th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) The Department of Health (DH) has issued a statement today, highlighting the anticipated rise in respiratory tract infections during the winter season. As temperatures drop, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the DH will continue to closely monitor the local community’s health situation through its surveillance mechanisms. The DH emphasises the importance of preventive measures, urging the public, especially high-risk groups, to receive both seasonal influenza vaccination (SIV) and COVID-19 vaccines for enhanced personal protection.

The CHP has been diligently monitoring the activity of respiratory pathogens in the local area through various channels, including laboratory testing, hospital admission data, and disease outbreak reports. Surveillance data from the past four weeks, up until November 25, revealed that the rhinovirus/enterovirus has shown the highest activity level among local respiratory tract pathogens. It accounted for approximately 10% of the respiratory specimens that tested positive, as reported by the CHP’s Public Health Laboratory Services Branch and the Hospital Authority (HA). Although maintaining a steady level, the next most active pathogens are parainfluenza viruses and adenovirus, with positive percentages of 5.2% and 4.4% respectively. These figures indicate a rising trend, aligning with the seasonal patterns observed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, data from the HA shows that the number of pediatric admissions to public hospitals related to Mycoplasma pneumoniae infection has ranged from 110 to 170 cases per month over the past three months. While higher than the 50-plus cases observed in August, the trend remains largely stable. Additionally, there has been no recent increase in the number of reported outbreaks involving respiratory tract infections.

Given that respiratory pathogens, including the influenza virus, tend to be more active and transmissible during the winter, the DH strongly advises the public, especially high-risk groups, to receive SIV as soon as possible. Individuals in high-risk groups, regardless of the number of doses received previously, should also consider receiving a booster dose at least six months after their last dose or COVID-19 infection, whichever is later. The DH emphasizes that vaccination is a safe and effective measure in preventing both seasonal influenza and COVID-19.

The DH spokesperson highlighted the effectiveness of mask-wearing in reducing the risk of viral infection and transmission. The CHP has consistently advised the following individuals to wear masks: those with fever or respiratory symptoms, individuals visiting or working in high-risk places such as residential care homes for the elderly or persons with disabilities, and high-risk individuals (e.g., those with underlying medical conditions or compromised immune systems) attending crowded locations such as public transport.

Moreover, acknowledging the potential for more severe complications among the elderly and vulnerable populations from both influenza and COVID-19, the CHP updated its guidelines on November 27 to remind residential care homes (RCHs) for the elderly and persons with disabilities to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene at all times. Staff and visitors are advised to continue wearing well-fitted surgical masks while working or visiting these facilities. The CHP has also conducted briefing sessions with the Social Welfare Department, emphasizing the importance of vaccination and mask-wearing to enhance infection control and reduce transmission risks within RCHs.

The DH spokesperson stressed the importance of strict personal, hand, and environmental hygiene practices at all times to prevent respiratory infections. Individuals with respiratory symptoms, even if mild, are advised to wear surgical masks, refrain from work or attending school, avoid crowded places, and promptly seek medical advice. It is essential to perform hand hygiene before wearing and after removing a mask.

As winter approaches, the DH urges the public to remain vigilant and take necessary precautions to safeguard their health and the well-being of others in the community.