Hong Kong medical and seafood experts have warned shoppers against touching freshwater fish at markets, after health authorities saw 79 cases of the invasive Group B Streptococcus bacteria infection in September and October. It comes after seven deaths linked to the outbreak were reported.

A fish market in Sheung Shui. Photo: Wikicommons.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) confirmed on Thursday that it had identified a cluster of 32 people infected by the same ST283 strain of the bacteria, among cases recorded between the start of September and October 10.

The CHP said earlier on Monday that it had observed a surge in the number of infections compared to the typical nine to 26 cases per month, with a number of cases connected to a wet market in Tsuen Wan, and a company in Yuen Long.

Hands off

Group B Streptococcus, dubbed Group B Strep, is commonly found in the intestines or lower genital tract. It is usually harmless in healthy adults with no symptoms, but can be dangerous to newborns, the elderly, or those with chronic illnesses.

Symptoms may include urinary tract infections, blood infections, pneumonia, or infections to the skin, soft tissue, bones, and joints.

“Investigations showed that some of the patients had a history of handling freshwater fish, including grass carp, before onset. Some of them had reported the handling of raw freshwater fish with hand wounds,” a CHP statement read.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Microbiologist Dr. Joseph Tsang advised Hongkongers — especially those suffering from eczema and plaque psoriasis — to keep wounds properly covered and avoid directly touching fish when shopping at wet markets, Ming Pao reported. Separate chopping boards should also be used when handling fish at home.

Hong Kong Chamber of Seafood Merchants chairperson Lee Choi-wah said on an RTHK radio programme that shoppers should instead simply observe the freshness of the fish they’d like to purchase, and avoid touching or using towels provided by some market stalls.

Seafood merchants could also see the outbreak affect their business temporarily, he said, as some Hongkongers may avoid entering markets.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.