Hong Kong pathologist plays down bird flu fears

Sunday, 30 April 2006

Leading Hong Kong pathologist and University of Adelaide graduate Dr John Nicholls says that the pandemic threat of avian flu may not be as deadly as many claim, arguing that scientists have learned valuable lessons from the deadly SARS virus.

Speaking at the offshore graduation ceremony for his alma mater in Hong Kong today, Dr Nicholls said the lessons learned during the SARS outbreak would stand the world in good stead should there be an outbreak of H5N1 infection in humans.

In February 2003, Dr Nicholls played a major role in identifying the mystery virus that causes SARS while working at the University of Hong Kong, based at the Queen Mary Hospital. He was profiled in the Winter 2004 edition of the University's Alumni magazine, Lumen.

"The good news right now is that there is minimal evidence that avian influenza can be passed from human to human right now, so unless you have close contact with birds, you should be fine," he told 73 graduands at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on April 30.

"Secondly, unlike SARS when it broke out, we know a lot about influenza and we are not dealing with the unknown.

"Thirdly, even if it does go human to human, I am confident that the lessons we all learned during the SARS outbreak will come back and stand us in good stead.

"When SARS hit, we did not have a manual on how to handle it - what to do when 10% of admissions are due to a contagious disease or when you run out of respirators.

"Now we are better prepared. Many companies have developed a contingency plan. As for the Hong Kong population, if H5N1 does break out, you will return to wearing masks and cleaning lift buttons and using 1 in 99 bleach - and life will go on," he says.

Dr Nicholls graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1983 and, following an internship at Darwin in the Northern Territory, commenced postgraduate training in pathology at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Sciences, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and The Adelaide Children's Hospital.

In 1998 Dr Nicholls moved to the University of Hong Kong to lecture in Pathology.

This is the third official Hong Kong graduation ceremony, with student numbers more than doubling in the past two years.


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