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Infectious disease expert warns of cross-contamination by shared public towels in wet markets

Public towels provided by fish stalls in wet markets could be a source of cross contamination of infectious disease, said Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, Chair Professor of the Department of Microbiology at The University of Hong Kong.

“Instead of a cloth towel shared by all customers, disposable paper towels should be provided to minimise cross contamination between customers as they dry their hands after touching raw seafood,’ said  Yuen. “The best practice is not to touch them at all.”

Photo: HKU Fight Covid-19

The “HKU Fight Covid-19” media team visited a number of markets in Hong Kong on September 24th and found that many fish stalls hang towels at their stalls for customers to dry their hands.

In early August, the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic sparked outbreaks in a number of wet markets. More than 10 vendors, including those at fish stalls, were confirmed with Covid-19 infections in the markets.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, who visited the markets, said that the virus could have been brought into the markets by patients and might survive for a long time due to the humidity and low temperature inside the markets. He warned that the virus could be transmitted through touching raw meat and fish.

In the aftermath of the outbreak, the markets were shut down briefly for disinfections. In an interview with Commercial Radio earlier, Dr Ho Pak-leung, director of HKU’s Center for Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology and Control, also called on the elderly to avoid going to markets, using cash or touching wet and dry food in the market.

Mr. Leung, who wrote to HKU’s Fight Covid-19 media team about the towel hazard, said he became concerned after observing many customers wiping their hands after picking fish.

Of the four markets in Central,  Western, Yau Tsim Mong and Kwai Tsing districts visited by  the “HKU Fight Covid-19” media team, shared towels were found at fish stalls in three of the markets. By early morning, the towels had been stained from frequent use. Some towels had turned blackish in colour. At a market in Tsing Yi, a stall owner was found picking fish for customers without wearing  a mask.

Photo: HKU Fight Covid-19

In addition to warning about the shared towels, Yuen also reminded the public to cook the fish thoroughly. “We need to minimise cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods and kitchen utensils,”  he said.

Meanwhile, some stall owners are observing good hygiene measures. In a wet market in Yau Tsim Mong, Mrs Lau, who has been running a fish stall for more than 10 years, displayed a sign, in both English and Chinese, that says, “Do not touch. Keep clean.”

Mrs Lau, believes that shared towels are full of germs. She said that sometimes the towels fall to the ground and are reused by customers.. “I never provide shared towels,” she said. “These towels are very dirty.”

Photo: HKU Fight Covid-19

Related news: HKU Press Release SCMP

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