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Report Finds Hong Kong Caught Off Guard by SARS - 2003-10-02

A report on Hong Kong's handling of its Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak concludes that health authorities were caught off guard - a situation the report says was compounded by China's early refusal to release accurate information on the disease.

The report by an independent panel of experts released Thursday criticized Hong Kong's government for "significant shortcomings" in its early response to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. But the panel did not blame individual people or departments for failing to prevent the disease's spread.

Instead it criticized hospital conditions, poor communication between government officials and the lack of contingency measures to deal with outbreaks.

Hong Kong leader, Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa, points out that the report was balanced. "The committee, they have criticized us in areas where we have failed; in public health areas, in areas of hospital care," he says. "But on the other hand, on the whole, what the committees have said is that we have done reasonably well in fighting SARS."

The report's specific criticisms include the fact that health workers lacked adequate training to treat patients with a highly infectious disease of which little is known, and that hospital beds were placed too close together and ventilation in the wards was inadequate.

Hong Kong's SARS outbreak, which spread to 1,700 people, was second only to the outbreak in mainland China where the disease originated nearly a year ago. More than 5,000 people were infected in China, but officials did not release accurate data until SARS infections peaked in March and April.

The panel says China's failure to inform Hong Kong about the magnitude of the crisis was a great disadvantage.

Mr. Tung says Hong Kong's proximity to China, where SARS originated, puts it in danger of future outbreaks. "Hong Kong's geography is like that, we are susceptible to this sort of attack."

Hong Kong's government created the committee of eleven experts from Britain, the United States, mainland China and Hong Kong to evaluate the territory's response to the crisis and make suggestions for improvements.

While more than two thirds of the world's known SARS cases were reported in mainland China and Hong Kong, the disease spread to almost 30 countries in a matter of six months. In total, SARS infected about 8,000 people and killed about 800, mostly in Asia.