Better late than never - Hong Kong and China improve communications on disease issues

A run of food scares in Hong Kong in recent weeks has seen the population frightened to eat pork because of swine flu and eels, and now fish, because of a carcinogenic chemical, plus the ever present worry of bird flu, all of which have emanated from China.

Despite this, according to Chief Executive Donald Tsang, communication between China and Hong Kong on health and food safety are getting better.

As his comments follow a visit by Hong Kong Health Minister York Chow to Beijing for urgent talks regarding the recent scares, there is hopefully some foundation to the claims.

The slow, and at times, lack of information about health issues from the mainland, has caused much angst in Hong Kong, which is heavily reliant on China for much of its food.

Tsang who was speaking at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club, swears lines of communication are improving and a much better system is now in place.

He does however admit that things are far from perfect.

Six people in Hong Kong, including two cases reported in the last two days, have become ill from a pig-borne disease caused by the Streptococcus suis bacterium since it was first reported in southwestern China in June.

The disease has already killed nearly 40 people in Sichuan province.

Nevertheless China's top food inspector, as late as yesterday, was apparently saying pork from Sichuan was safe, and Hong Kong was expected to resume frozen pork imports from the province on that day.

Of the more than 200 mainland people who have contracted the pig-borne disease, most became sick after slaughtering, handling or eating infected pigs.

According to Tsang the recent food scares have led to better communication on disease issues with mainland China, in much the same way as the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) did.

He says it is sad that they have had to learn through these episodes, but promises they will do their best to improve the communication system.

Tsang says there is now a much better information-sharing system in place, not only with the central authority but also with the provincial authorities in Guangdong and Shenzhen.

Hong Kong was expected to resume handling applications to import pork from Sichuan on Wednesday, but authorities say they will continue to closely monitor eels and freshwater fish imported from China.

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