Hong Kong’s health care services are the envy of many across Asia

a group of people walking down the street in front of a crowd: Residents submit their deep-throat saliva samples for Covid-19 testing at Ping Shek Estate in Kwun Tong on July 7. Despite Hong Kong’s socioeconomic gaps, residents have access to top-notch health care. Photo: Winson Wong

Residents submit their deep-throat saliva samples for Covid-19 testing at Ping Shek Estate in Kwun Tong on July 7. Despite Hong Kong’s socioeconomic gaps, residents have access to top-notch health care. Photo: Winson Wong

Health care can be expensive, and governments have learned that prevention is the best way to avoid medical procedures and treatment. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, even access to preventive medicine – including immunisation, a clean water supply and pre- and postnatal care for mothers – is not universally guaranteed. Hongkongers should be thankful they are entitled to these public health measures.

The Hong Kong government has ensured everyone has access to immunisation. Under the Hong Kong Childhood Immunisation Programme, almost all eligible young people are protected, free of charge, against a range of communicable diseases through a regime of shots and booster shots from birth through to sixth grade. Children from families that receive social assistance are also eligible, along with other children, for free flu vaccinations.

The World Health Organisation is working with a group of multilateral, bilateral and government agencies to bring diseases such as polio and measles under control in many developing countries. In Laos, the government is still working hard to control diseases such as measles, rubella, and hepatitis B. Agencies seem to have trouble delivering vaccines in rural communities. Hong Kong’s public health system, by comparison, is much more inclusive.

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Hong Kong also has a ready supply of clean drinking water. The Water Supplies Department created the Hong Kong Drinking Water Standards so the city’s drinking water complies with WHO standards. These include limiting the amount of metals such as arsenic, lead, and mercury; pesticides such as DDT; disinfectants and their by-products including chlorine; inorganic chemicals such as fluoride and nitrate; organic chemicals such as benzenes; organisms such as E coli; and radioactive material.

Concerns about the city’s water supply in recent years have come from the last leg of journey, in the uncleanliness of water pipes in public housing estates. Those seem to be isolated cases that have been dealt with, though.

Things are much worse elsewhere in Asia. In Pakistan, for example, much of the water supply in the capital, Islamabad, was found to lack chlorine. Without clean water, people often fall sick with diarrhoea, a major killer in the developing world.

In neighbouring India, the charity Water.org estimates that more than 10 per cent of the population lacks access to clean water, and many communicable diseases there are linked to their unsafe water supply. Like in many developing countries, non-profit organisations and government agencies use chlorine bleach to cleanse drinking water at home, a reality that is unthinkable in Hong Kong.

Another area in which the Hong Kong government takes care of everyone, regardless of wealth, is maternal health. Maternal mortality has long been low in the city – in the 1980s, it was already below 10 deaths per 100,000 births, or the level where Singapore is today. Thanks to good health care for pregnant women, there was only one registered maternal death in 2018, or a ratio of 1.5 deaths per 100,000 births.

In Myanmar, there were almost 2,800 maternal deaths in 2014, the year before the latest census That translates to 282 deaths per 100,000 births. New mothers there still grapple with obtaining access to pre- and postnatal care and receiving treatment for treatable conditions such as pre-eclampsia, a form of high blood pressure.

The latest World Bank data shows Indonesia’s maternal mortality ratio is 177 deaths per 100,000 births. A study conducted by the Ministry of Health and the United Nations Population Fund found that eclampsia and haemorrhaging were the main causes, with half of those cases being preventable.

Medication and a ready supply of blood are essential but lacking in the country. In Hong Kong, there is free access to pre- and postnatal services for all residents, which helps them identify life-threatening medical conditions and receive treatment.

There are relatively inexpensive and easy programmes to institute to improve the health of the population, including immunising children, cleaning drinking water and giving women check-ups before and after they give birth. Even among Hong Kong’s neighbours in Asia, though, that is not a fact of life. In this city, where various socioeconomic gaps exist, access to top-notch public health programmes is certainly something to commend.

Gary Lai is a Hong Kong-based economist

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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