Hong Kong’s flu is so bad this year, the entire city could soon be wearing face masks

Care for some hand sanitizer?
Care for some hand sanitizer?
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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The particularly nasty strain of influenza that’s circling the globe this year is technically called H3N2, but it was once known as the “Hong Kong flu.” It has been especially brutal to its namesake city, where it has killed almost 120 people during the winter flu season.

City officials are worried it could get much worse. “The severity of the epidemic sets to rival that of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS] outbreak in 2003,” legislative council member Cyd Ho warned during the council’s meeting yesterday.

She and other legislators are asking the Health Secretary to detail contingency plans, marshal more hospital resources and explain how the government plans to protect people during the Chinese New Year holiday, when thousands of tourists arrive from the mainland.

The city of 7 million, which watched its economy crater after the SARS epidemic, is especially attuned to monitoring communicable diseases. Hong Kong parent Facebook groups are full of rumors of deaths and questions about school closings after dozens of schools have reported outbreaks, and officials in nearby countries such as Thailand are issuing reassurances to their own citizens.

One solution being discussed by Hong Kong legislators and health experts is making everyone wear surgical masks in public. As Quartz has reported, surgical mask usage first spread through Asia after the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Research shows that the lightweight masks are not very good at keeping healthy people from contracting the flu, but can reduce the spread of the virus by infected people.

At this point, Hong Kong health officials say it’s too early to make mask-wearing mandatory for the general public, but some schools are already requiring students to wear them.

“If everyone has to wear a mask, it will create social isolation,” health minister Ko Wing-man said during the council meeting, the South China Morning Post reported. “Just like during SARS, people wouldn’t have close contact or even shake hands.”

H3N2 is particularly damaging this year because the World Health Organization’s flu vaccine recommendations didn’t anticipate its prevalence, making flu shots less effective.