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Disease not in control: HK
- WHO issues warning about global epidemic potential

Hong Kong, April 14 (Reuters): Hong Kong’s leader said SARS has not yet been brought under control, as the mystery virus that has been dubbed the “21st century disease” claimed more victims and took a mounting economic toll.

China, at the epicentre of the outbreak, reported four more deaths and 74 new cases of the flu-like virus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said today, taking its totals to 64 deaths and 1,393 infection cases.

A Canadian lab offered a ray of hope that a vaccine could be developed for the virus that has now killed 137 people and infected nearly 3,300 across the world — but health experts say it may be months, even years away.

Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa told his boss, Chinese President Hu Jintao, in China’s Shenzen city that the virus had yet to be “brought under effective control” in the territory of seven million, although the nature of the disease and how to treat it was better understood, a government statement said.

Hu’s low-profile visit to southern Guangdong province was the strongest indication yet of how seriously the Chinese leadership views the worsening health crisis in Hong Kong.

The number of SARS cases in Hong Kong has soared to 1,150 and its death toll to 40 with five more announced yesterday — the largest jump in weeks.

The virus, which often deteriorates into pneumonia, has been carried by travellers to about 20 countries in the past six weeks after first showing up in Guangdong in November. In a weekend statement released one month after issuing its first alert on the disease, the WHO sounded a warning that SARS could become a global epidemic.

“If the SARS maintains its present pathogenicity and transmissibility, it could become the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential,” David Heymann, the agency’s executive director of communicable diseases, wrote on the WHO website .

The way SARS is emerging suggests great potential for rapid spread in a highly mobile, interconnected world, he said.

Singapore reported three new deaths thought to be from SARS yesterday, taking its toll to 12. It also announced the quarantining of 400 staff and patients at its biggest hospital. The virus, which is new to science and has no known cure, has hit hospital staff the hardest. Health officials say they are not sure how the virus spreads, although close contact with an infected person appears to be the main method of transmission

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