The World Health Organization, in a rare move, has issued a warning against traveling to Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong because of a deadly outbreak of a mysterious flu-like illness called SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Latest WHO figures estimate that more than 2,000 people have been infected with SARS, and more than 70 have died.
The WHO said Wednesday it is advising tourists and business people to postpone travel to Hong Kong and Guangdong province in China because it does not completely understand the disease, for which there is as yet no known drug or vaccine.
The head of WHO's Communicable Disease Program, David Heymann, says at least nine foreign businessmen have contracted the killer SARS pneumonia in Hong Kong. He says they have returned home to their country with the infection, raising fears that they might transmit the disease to others.
He says WHO also is warning against traveling to Guangdong because it has little information about the progression of SARS in the Chinese province. "This is the first time we have recommended people avoid an area and this is, of course, because we do not understand the disease completely, because there is no vaccine and there is no drug," said Dr. Heymann. "So this is the first time that we have made this type of a recommendation in recent years to avoid an area because of a disease."
Dr. Heymann said there is "no way we can tell for sure" whether SARS has peaked internationally. But he adds that the number of cases continues to grow so, as he puts it, the disease is still traveling around the world.
Dr. Heymann says WHO experts will be re-evaluating this warning day by day and will make a decision each day as to whether it needs to be changed. He also says WHO is concerned by the way SARS is being transmitted in Hong Kong.
"In Hong Kong, they have found that transmission does not seem to be only by close contact from person to person," he said. "It appears that there is something in the environment which is transferring the virus which is serving as a vehicle to transfer the virus from one person to another."
Dr. Heymann said experts do not believe the virus is spreading through the air. He says a more likely explanation is that it may be infecting people through a water or sewage system.
He says he is confident Hong Kong will, in a few days, have a better understanding of what is going on and be better able to control the outbreak.