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Virus pushes HK to brink
- Pressure mounts on health care system as infections rise

Hong Kong/Singapore, April 10 (Reuters): The deadly SARS virus has pushed Hong Kong’s health care system to the brink of collapse, hospital workers said today, as anxiety grew over the spread of the flu-like illness.

A quarter of Hong Kong’s 1,000 cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are health workers and another 12 were confirmed with the illness today.

“I am afraid that if more hospital staff get infected, the entire health care system would collapse,” Peter Wong, a spokesman for three major nurse unions, told a news conference. He said Hong Kong government hospitals were not providing staff with adequate protective gear.

The government said another three people died of SARS, bringing the toll to 30, and officials feared the illness could spread further through the city’s crowded tower blocks.

Singapore slapped a quarantine on arriving foreign workers and took drastic measures to enforce quarantine orders on hundreds of people suspected of exposure to SARS, including mounting “webcams” in homes and threatening to use electronic wrist bands.

Indonesia said it banned 8,000 workers from travelling to SARS-hit countries.

“We are facing an unprecedented situation. We are dealing with a serious, unseen threat,” Singapore’s minister of manpower, Lee Boon Yang, said today. Singapore is among the countries hardest hit and is trying to pin down the source of an outbreak in the city’s biggest hospital. The government reported seven new infections, five alone in the sprawling Singapore General Hospital. It believes an infected elderly man could be the source of the outbreak.

There are fresh signs SARS is dealing a heavy economic blow across Asia, hitting hotels, airlines, restaurants, taxi companies and other services.

As the illness spreads, governments in the region fear slower economic growth and long-term damage to Asia’s image.

Nine people have died in Singapore of SARS and 133 have been infected. The government, which has revised down economic growth forecasts, has imposed sweeping controls, including home quarantine and school closures.

But the virus has kept spreading and staff in five of the city’s six big public hospitals have now been infected.

The government today said it would quarantine new foreign workers from SARS-afflicted regions such as China, Hong Kong and Canada for 10 days.

In addition to web-cameras, anyone caught breaking house quarantine would be given an electric wristband that alerts authorities if they leave home.

One top health official said Asia would have to live with SARS. “I think we have to assume that the virus is in Asia to stay,” said Dr Jim Hughes, head of infectious diseases at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hong Kong’s public health care system, one of the most advanced in Asia, has been overwhelmed by the growing number of SARS patients.

The government earlier this week said it was preparing a “worst-case scenario” of an additional 2,000 cases by the end of this month. But isolation wards are already overflowing and essential surgery is being delayed. Trained staff are in short supply.

Half of all Hong Kong cases come from Kowloon — the most densely populated place on the planet. “Kowloon is the worst disaster area,” Fred Li, a legislator representing the district, said.

“The disease is certain to spread. People living here have children and relatives in the next block or estate and they see each other all the time. The risk of infection is so high.”

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