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Cockroach cloud on lethal virus

Hong Kong/Singapore, April 8 (Reuters): A deadly respiratory virus has spread to two more densely populated parts of Hong Kong, and a top health official warned today cockroaches might be spreading the disease.

In Singapore, air force paramedics have joined the battle against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the government said internet-linked cameras might be used to enforce home quarantine orders.

But in China’s Guangdong province, where SARS first emerged, officials said the rate of new infections was down sharply and the outbreak was under control. At least 103 people have died worldwide from SARS and 2,750 have been infected in about 20 countries — nearly half of them in China.

At least three more people died in Beijing from SARS than officially reported, doctors in the Chinese capital said today, as fears spread and hospitals disclosed suspected cases not previously revealed.

“It’s impossible there are only 19 SARS cases in Beijing,” said a doctor at the Beijing University No. 1 Hospital. “There are no beds left in our epidemic ward.”

Beijing has reported 19 cases and four deaths out of 1,279 infections and 53 deaths nationwide, most of them in Guangdong, where the virus first appeared last November.

More than 40 people in Hong Kong’s Ngau Tau Kok district in Kowloon and Tuen Mun in the New Territories caught the disease in the last 10 days, said a health department spokesman and a district lawmaker in Tuen Mun, raising fears it is far from contained. Two more deaths and 45 new infections were reported today in Hong Kong, where the disease has already killed 25.

Deputy director of health Leung Pak-yin told a radio programme cockroaches might have carried infected waste from sewage pipes into apartments in a huge housing complex, Amoy Gardens, which has had a quarter of the city’s 928 infections.

If proved true, it would represent an alarming development in the swiftly spreading epidemic in Hong Kong, a city of seven million people filled with densely populated apartment blocks.

Doctors believe the virus is spread through droplets by sneezing and coughing or by direct contact. If it can be carried by cockroaches it would be even harder to contain.

Hong Kong has the second highest number of infections in the world outside of mainland China, where SARS first emerged. “The drainage may be the reason. It is possible that the cockroaches carried the virus into the homes,” Leung said.

SARS has infected staff at five of Singapore’s six main public hospitals. The government reported one more death and five new cases today, taking the toll so far to nine and the number of infections to 118. Another 82 are suspected to have the disease.

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