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Infection Worries Hong Kong Hospital Workers - 2003-08-27

An outbreak of upper respiratory infections among health workers in Hong Kong has raised questions about infection control measures in hospitals.

A Hong Kong hospital has isolated an entire ward of patients after seven health care workers on the ward fell ill with cold and flu symptoms. The workers complained about sore throats, coughs and mild fevers. But the hospital says it does not think the employees are suffering from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

SARS emerged in southern China late last year and spread to 1,700 people in Hong Kong this year. It causes a severe form of pneumonia, and nearly three hundred SARS patients in Hong Kong died.

Blood tests are being done to rule out SARS but doctors say the hospital workers most likely had a common upper respiratory infection or flu. Five have already recovered, whereas most SARS patients were ill for weeks.

"All these staff did not have any sign or any X-ray evidence of pneumonia," says Lo Wing Lok, a lawmaker representing the medical profession in Hong Kong. "Without pneumonia it doesn't fit the criteria for the diagnosis of SARS." He says extra care is necessary in Hong Kong because there is the danger that SARS or a variation of the disease could reemerge.

Dr. Lo thinks the hospital did not overreact by isolating the workers with cold and flu symptoms.

While flu outbreaks in hospitals are common, Dr. Lo says they can also alert medical professionals to possible lapses in infection-control measures. "We can't guarantee one hundred percent that there will be no outbreak in hospitals in the future, but as soon as there is an outbreak, we should review the situation [to] see whether the measures that we have taken is adequate," says Dr. Lo.

SARS infected about 8,400 people in more than 30 countries in just six months after it emerged. Worldwide, it killed 813 people.

The World Health Organization says that travel advisories, strict infection control measures and massive quarantines helped halt the spread of the disease.

However, an international team of experts recently warned that SARS or viruses similar to the coronavirus that causes it, could reemerge in southern China.