Mystery Flu Spreads in Hong Kong Complex

Health officials announced a sharp rise Monday in cases of a flu-like disease at a Hong Kong apartment complex and slapped a 10-day quarantine on one building as they scrambled to contain the illness that has killed about 60 people worldwide.


HONG KONG (AP) -- Health officials announced a sharp rise Monday in cases of a flu-like disease at a Hong Kong apartment complex and slapped a 10-day quarantine on one building as they scrambled to contain the illness that has killed about 60 people worldwide.

Two more people died from the illness, health officials said Monday while announcing plans to set up quarantine centers if the illness keeps spreading.

Meanwhile, a World Health Organization official said Monday that experts believe they soon will identify the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, though finding a cure could take longer.

``I think we can identify the causative agent in quite a short time period. We think probably within a few days, at most a few weeks,'' Hitoshi Oshitani, the WHO coordinator for SARS, said in Manila, the Philippines. ``But this doesn't mean we will find the specific treatment for this disease within the short time period.''

Researchers suspect the disease _ which Oshitani called ``the most significant outbreak that has been spread through air travel in history'' _ is caused primarily by the coronavirus.

Scientists working with WHO have not completely ruled out the possibility the paramyxovirus, which causes measles and canine distemper, may play some role. But the coronavirus, the second major cause of the common cold, is viewed as the most likely culprit. Oshitani said the germ causing the new disease possibly came from an animal.

The 92 new cases at Amoy Gardens apartments brought the total number infected in the 19-building complex to 213. The surge in cases led some health officials to fear SARS could be more contagious than initially believed.

There still is no known treatment for SARS, which has killed about 60 people, with the majority of cases in Hong Kong and China. Three new deaths were reported Sunday, one each in Hong Kong, Toronto and Singapore. More than 1,600 people have been infected worldwide.

The illness has prompted officials in Asian countries to impose long-unused quarantine laws, close schools and impose new health screening on travelers. Canadian officials declared a health emergency.

In Hong Kong, residents at Block E of Amoy Gardens were ordered to stay in their homes until midnight April 9 or face fines or jail time, while being offered regular medical checkups and three free meals per day. Hong Kong officials said 107 people from Block E are sick.

Hong Kong's health secretary, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong, told a news conference the quarantine was forced by ``a very exceptional circumstance.''

Yeoh was emotional and initially had trouble speaking to reporters.

``We haven't done it before and we hope we won't do it again,'' he said of the quarantine.

Singapore also reported another death Monday.

Singapore's health minister, Lim Hng Kiang, said the disease may spread more easily than first believed, with some people found to be more infectious than others. These people can sicken as many as 40 others, he said.

``We run the risk of a huge new cluster of infected people, which could start a chain reaction,'' Lim told a news conference Sunday.

Doctors and nurses in Singapore are donning special respirator suits designed to handle germ warfare attacks so they can get close to infected patients.

Yeoh said Hong Kong officials believe the virus was brought to Amoy Gardens by a man infected at a hospital where many Hong Kong victims fell ill.

Asked whether SARS was spreading through the air, Yeoh said that could not be ruled out.

Officials had said previously the illness, which has killed 13 people in Hong Kong, seemed to spread through close contact and Yeoh said experts still believe the sickness is being transmitted mostly through droplets, when victims sneeze or cough and nearby people are infected.

``No one can rule out this possibility of airborne transmission, because the virus can change so quickly these days,'' Yeoh said.

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