The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Airborne virus threat in HK

Hong Kong, March 31 (Reuters): Almost 100 people in one Hong Kong apartment block were reported infected by a deadly pneumonia virus today, raising fears that the disease was being spread through the air or water supply.

Authorities quarantined more than 200 people in that one block of the Amoy Gardens housing complex in an effort to contain the virus, which has killed nearly 60 people worldwide and spread alarm across Asia. About 210 of the 620 infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in all of Hong Kong live in Amoy Gardens and 150 of them are from Block E of the complex.

A staggering 92 people were reported infected today in the block, located in the midst of the teeming Kowloon district of the territory, one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.

“We are now examining all possible angles, to see if it is airborne or in the (building’s) water mains,” a government spokeswoman said.

Dozens of health workers in full surgical gear stood guard at the entrance of the apartment block to stop any residents from leaving as policemen in masks cordoned off the area.

But residents said many families had already fled.

The city’s largest bank, HSBC, ordered about 50 of its headquarters staff to stay home for seven days as a precautionary move after a teller fell ill, and activated a back-up dealing room to run until the end of the crisis.

Hong Kong and Singapore have closed all schools in a bid to contain the disease and quarantined those who have been exposed. Besides these two cities, deaths have also been reported from Vietnam, Canada and from China, where the disease was believed to have originated in November. A doctor from the World Health Organisation, who was infected in Vietnam after he had identified the virus, died in a Bangkok hospital at the weekend, the latest victim.

The disease has triggered tighter screenings at many airports and a growing number of countries have advised citizens against unnecessary travel to the worst-affected areas.

Singapore has closed schools and quarantined 945 people, with hundreds of others advised to stay home, as new infections from the flu-like virus showed no sign of letting up. Today it sent nurses to the airport to check incoming passengers. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Saturday that the virus may wreak havoc.

“The potential for infecting larger numbers of people is great,” said its director Julie Gerberding. “We may be in the early stages of what could be a larger problem.”

Cases have also surfaced in the US, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, Ireland, Italy and Taiwan. More than 1,600 people have been infected worldwide, but some have since recovered. About 4 per cent of the people who catch it die from the disease.

While Australia played down the dangers of the disease saying it has not had even one confirmed case, neighbouring New Zealand gave its health authorities more power to contain any outbreak. Indonesia and Thailand, where the WHO doctor died of the disease, were taking no chances.

In Thailand, incoming passengers showing any symptoms of the disease will be quarantined for 24 hours and demand for masks from the public has been overwhelming.

In a hospital in Jakarta, staff were handing out face masks to all visitors. “If the outbreak occurs in Indonesia, it will be very difficult to control as many regions are still not aware of the danger,” one doctor said.

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