You are viewing the content for Friday 6 June 2003

Hong Kong’s special athletes hit by a peculiar Irish infection

I WRITE in response to the latest "final" June 4 decision of the Department of Health and Children’s expert group on SARS and the Special Olympics to maintain its ban on Hong Kong’s disabled athletes travelling to Ireland, thus depriving them of the chance to attend what likely would be the most thrilling event in their lives.

This illogical decision comes after a period of unprecedented high-level dialogue between senior Hong Kong government officials and Irish medical experts in which the Hong Kong side sought to articulate a clearer understanding of the situation and the extra efforts that it would make to guarantee the health of its athletes before departure.

It is almost two weeks since the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the lifting of its travel advisory against Hong Kong, noting that SARS outbreaks had been contained, which is much different to its observations regarding the status of Canada and mainland China.

In fact, all new SARS cases confirmed in Hong Kong over the past month (an average of fewer than five cases per day compared to upwards of 60 daily at the end of March) have occurred in people who were already identified as contacts of a person with SARS and under active surveillance by the local health authorities.

None of the Hong Kong Special Olympics athletes hoping to travel to Ireland has had contact with any SARS patients, or any suspected cases.

The WHO has highly commended Hong Kong's transparency and aggressive contact tracing procedures.

All close contacts of known SARS cases are quarantined at home.

In addition, their Hong Kong ID numbers are passed to the immigration department to ensure that they cannot leave the territory.

Since the implementation of these rigorous exit-screening procedures at border checkpoints, which also include mandatory temperature checking of all outbound travellers, there have been no reports of internationally exported cases of SARS from Hong Kong.

What is more, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended against cancelling or postponing gatherings that will include people travelling to the US from areas with SARS, and the quarantine of persons arriving from SARS-affected areas who have shown no fever or respiratory symptoms.

As such, over the past fortnight Hong Kong exhibitors have been welcomed to the Las Vegas Jewellery Fair and the Cannes Film Festival as a result of the precautionary measures that the exhibitors had undertaken voluntarily.

And yet, it is against such transparency that Ireland still maintains its travel ban depriving athletes some of whom have trained for up to eight years, and whose team won 53 gold medals at the last Special Olympics their chance to be the pride of Hong Kong.

Remarkably, no such travel ban has been imposed on other travellers from Hong Kong seeking entry to Ireland.

This 'final' decision appears not only irrational, but also hypocritical, given the latest guidelines conveniently lifting the travel ban on athletes from cities and regions where local transmission of SARS has not been reported, meaning that the Special Olympic Games will not be devoid of two of the largest participating teams, Canada and China.

It demonstrates that the Department of Health and Children has chosen not to follow the WHO's advice and made a decision without due regard to the precautionary measures that the Hong Kong Special Olympics Committee had proposed to take before their departure for the games.

The official flag presentation ceremony for the Hong Kong Special Olympics team is set to take place here on June 8, an event supported by The Hong Kong Gaelic Athletic Association, the St Patrick's Society of Hong Kong, the Irish Business Forum and Enterprise Ireland.

It is the fervent wish of the Irish community in Hong Kong that the Irish government remove this unnecessary travel ban.

Niall O'Reilly,
15, Mosque Street,
Mid-Levels,
Hong Kong.