Viral outbreak in Hong Kong revives fears of SARS epidemic

HONG KONG authorities have moved to a “serious response” level as fears spread about a mysterious infectious disease that may have been brought back by visitors to a mainland Chinese city.
Five possible cases have been reported of a viral pneumonia that has also infected at least 44 people in Wuhan, an inland city west of Shanghai and about 900km north of Hong Kong.
The outbreak, which emerged last month, has revived memories of the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic that started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in the mainland, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
The serious-response level activated on Saturday indicates a moderate impact on Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million people. It is the second-highest in a three-tier system that is part of a new government plan launched Saturday to respond to infectious diseases of unknown cause.
The city’s health department added an additional thermal imaging system at Hong Kong’s airport on Friday to check the body temperature of arriving passengers.
More staff have been assigned for temperature checks at the West Kowloon high-speed rail station that connects Hong Kong to the mainland.
City leader, Carrie Lam, on a visit to the train station on Friday to review the health surveillance measures, urged any travellers who develop respiratory symptoms to wear surgical masks, seek medical attention and let doctors know where they have been.
The Wuhan health commission said 11 of the 44 people diagnosed with the pneumonia were in critical condition as of Friday. All were being treated in isolation and 121 others who had been in close contact with them were under observation.
Most of the cases have been traced to the South China Seafood City food market in the suburbs of sprawling Wuhan, where offerings reportedly include wild animals that can carry viruses dangerous to humans. The commission said the market has been disinfected.
The most common symptom had been fever, with shortness of breath and lung infections in a small number of cases, the commission said. There had been no clear indications of human-to-human transmission of the disease.
The latest cases in Hong Kong are two women, aged 12 and 41, who had been to Wuhan in the past 14 days but did not appear to have visited the food market, the Hospital Authority said. They were in stable condition and being treated in isolation. Besides SARS, Hong Kong has also been hit by bird flu in 1997 and swine flu in 2009. Hong Kong is also reeling from the effects of protest which have been going on since last year sucking life out of the economy. Tourism has not been this bad since disease outbreaks of 15 years ago.
Tourist arrivals in Hong Kong fell 56 percent year over year in November for a total of 2.65 million, not far off the 2003 levels that suffered from a breakout in SARS, back in 2003.