Hong Kong Officials Reacted Too Slowly to SARS


2004-07-05
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HONG KONG — ; Top Hong Kong health officials were unprepared to meet last year's outbreak of SARS, reacting too slowly to a major public health crisis that killed 299 people in the territory, a legislative report said Monday.

Secretary for Health, Welfare, and Food Yeoh Eng-kiong, former director of health Margaret Chan, and Hospital Authority chairman Leong Che-hung were among five key figures found to have mishandled the outbreak in a six-month probe by Hong Kong's Legislative Council.

The report blamed them for failing to recognize the importance of the disease when it appeared across the border in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou early last year, and for failing to take appropriate action.

But it praised Hong Kong's much-criticized Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa for urging officials to err on the side of caution and suggesting that relatives of victims be quarantined — ; a step Hong Kong officials said they took only after carefully weighing the implications for individual freedoms.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong last year and killed 299, throwing the territory into a crisis that sapped confidence and hit the economy hard.

Lawmakers found that both Yeoh and Chan's performances were "not satisfactory" in their reaction to the epidemic, and that they failed to consider how well hospitals could handle an influx of SARS patients. They were also criticized for communicating poorly with the public.

Yeoh apologized Monday to Hong Kong's SARS victims, their families and medical workers, saying he accepted responsibility for shortcomings, including misleading pu blic statements that initially underestimated the severity of SARS.

But he sidestepped questions about his resignation, saying that officials were dealing at first with an unknown disease and they "worked tirelessly and selflessly around the clock" to control it.

Tung also correctly told officials to worry about public health before focusing on the economic damage from SARS, according to the 434-page report, which was careful to avoid addressing the role of mainland Chinese health officials in trying to cover up the extent of the outbreak.

Tung was also praised by the report for enhancing public health measures at borders, disseminating information to the public, and enhancing liaison with the Chinese authorities.

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