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Southern China Residents Fear Unidentified Virus - 2003-02-12

A virus in southern China has caused several deaths and led to panic buying of medicine. Health officials are hunting for the cause of the outbreak.

Many residents of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong are wearing surgical masks and stocking up on medicines because of the unidentified virus. At least 300 people have been sickened by the flu-like virus over the past few months, and about one-third of the patients were medical workers. In some cases, the virus develops into pneumonia, which has killed at least six people.

Chinese authorities say the virus is not a cause for alarm, and they deny reports that the virus is spreading nationwide.

The Guangdong provincial government says it is working to control the spread of the disease. Medical workers in the province say the virus is not as serious as rumored.

Doctors say the priority is now on finding the cause, a sentiment echoed by Ian Simpson, a World Health Organization spokesman in Geneva.

"What we don't yet know is what's causing this. It's clearly of some concern to the Chinese authorities," said Mr. Simpson. "Really at this point we're waiting for the results of the lab tests, which we're hoping to get within two or three days, then we'll know more about what's causing this and it will be a bit clearer what we can do and what the Chinese government can do."

This week, rumors of hundreds of deaths began sweeping southern China, sparking panic in some cities. Reports say that some people are leaving Guangzhou, the provincial capital, to escape the illness.

Shoppers have cleared shops of antibiotics and paid inflated prices for vinegar, which many Chinese regard as a disinfectant.

Southern China is a known source of new strains of flu and other viruses, which have often been traced to the region's poultry industry.

In 1997, a new strain of flu killed six people in Hong Kong and led to the slaughter of almost one and a half million chickens in the territory.