The two major health concerns for travelers to Hong Kong in the past have been SARS and avian flu. At press time, however, neither has posed a threat for some time for those going to the SAR (yes, its name is an unfortunate coincidence). Hong Kong culled its entire poultry population several times after the first reported bird flu outbreak in 1997 (the last reported human case of avian flu in Hong Kong was in 2003), and importation of poultry from mainland China is immediately halted whenever any outbreaks occur there. In 2008, a ban on stocking live chickens overnight in Hong Kong's wet markets went into effect; that, together with a growing preference to shop in supermarkets for packaged meats, has greatly reduced the risk of another outbreak in Hong Kong.
As for SARS, there have been no major occurrences since the 2003 outbreak sickened 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299 of them. However, because of other threats such as H1N1, Hong Kong monitors all passengers arriving by air, boat, and train by taking their temperatures with a thermal scan. Passengers with pneumonia or fever, as well as those arriving from infected areas, are kept under close monitoring or isolation. To avoid being unnecessarily detained, don't travel with a fever. As an extra precaution, you might wish to have a flu shot before departing for Hong Kong.
Once in Hong Kong, you'll notice dispensers for hand sanitizers virtually everywhere, including restrooms, shops, hotels, and other public places; because good hygiene is the best defense against infectious disease, wash your hands as often as you can.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country -- including the latest outbreaks of avian flu -- and offers tips on food safety. Health issues are also monitored by Hong Kong's Department of Health (tel. 852/2961 8989; www.dh.gov.hk).
Prescriptions can be filled at Hong Kong pharmacies only if they're issued by a local doctor. To avoid the hassle, be sure to bring more prescriptions than you think you'll need, clearly labeled in their original packages, and pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage. It's also a good idea to carry copies of your prescriptions in case you run out, including generic names in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. Over-the-counter items are easy to obtain, though name brands may be different from those back home, and some ingredients allowed elsewhere may be forbidden in Hong Kong (and vice versa).
If you're traveling during the hot and humid summer months, limit your exposure to the sun, especially during the first few days of your trip and particularly from 11am to 2pm. Use a sunscreen with a high protection factor. To avoid dehydration, you should also carry a water bottle, especially when hiking.
Another concern when hiking in the New Territories or the islands is snakes. I've never seen one, but of Hong Kong's 49 native species, 9 are venomous.
If you have a respiratory illness, be forewarned that air pollution in Hong Kong has increased significantly in recent years, due mainly to growing manufacturing across the border and increased vehicular traffic. In addition to checking daily air quality reports in the South China Morning Post, you can also check the government's Environmental Protection Department website at www.epd-asg.gov.hk/eindex.php for the current and next day's forecast of the air pollution index.
Generally, you're safe eating anywhere in Hong Kong, even at roadside food stalls. Stay clear of local oysters and shellfish, however, and remember that many restaurants outside the major hotels and tourist areas use MSG in their dishes as a matter of course, especially fast-food restaurants and Chinese kitchens that import products from the mainland (some health experts, however, debunk the widely held Western belief that MSG can cause numbness, weakness, or other ailments). Water is safe to drink except in rural areas, where you should drink bottled water. Nonetheless, most upper-end and many medium-range hotels offer free bottled water in their guest rooms.
Healthy Travels to You -- The following government websites offer up-to-date health-related travel advice.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
Hong Kong has many Western-trained physicians. If you get sick, you may want to contact the concierge at your hotel -- some upper-range hotels have in-house doctors or clinics. Otherwise, your embassy in Hong Kong can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. If you still can't find a doctor who can help you right away, try the local hospital. Many have walk-in-clinics for cases that are not life threatening. Doctors and hospitals generally do not accept credit cards and require immediate cash payment for health services. If, on the other hand, you end up in the emergency room of a hospital, you're required to pay a set fee of HK$570 for its services, but if you cannot pay immediately you will be billed.
Crime & Safety
Hong Kong is relatively safe for the visitor, especially if you use common sense and stick to such well-traveled nighttime areas as Tsim Sha Tsui, Lan Kwai Fong, Wan Chai, or Causeway Bay. On the other hand, the main thing you must guard against is pickpockets. They often work in groups to pick men's pockets or slit open a woman's purse, quickly taking the valuables and then relaying them on to accomplices who disappear in the crowd. Favored places are exactly those places where tourists are likely to be, namely Tsim Sha Tsui, Central, Causeway Bay, and Wan Chai. You should also be on guard on crowded public conveyances such as the MTR and in public markets.
It's best to hike in groups of two or more as isolated cases of hikers being robbed in country parks and Victoria Peak have been known to occur.
To be on the safe side, keep your valuables in your in-room safe or hotel's safe-deposit box. If you need to carry your passport or large amounts of money, conceal everything in a money belt.