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WHO Issues Worldwide Warning About Flu-Like Illness - 2003-03-13

The World Health Organization has issued a worldwide warning to health authorities about a flu-like illness that has spread quickly among health workers in Hong Kong and Vietnam. At least two health workers in mainland China are being closely monitored.

Hong Kong's Hospital Authority announced on Thursday that at least 38 health care workers at one hospital have come down with flu-like symptoms. At least 23 of those workers were diagnosed with atypical pneumonia and two are in critical condition.

Dr. William Ho, the chief executive of the hospital authority, says the agent causing the sickness is likely an airborne virus. He says the outbreak in Hong Kong has not spread outside the hospitals. "Our surveillance has not shown any changes in the pattern of pneumonia in the community in terms of numbers or the types of pneumoniasm, he said. "This is a very exceptional phenomenon where we see outbreaks occur in hospitals and institutions. They seem to affect predominantly health care workers caring for patients." A separate outbreak in recent days of flu-like illnesses affected at least 20 hospital staff members in Vietnam.

A day after issuing a global health warning to hospitals, a World Health Organization spokesman says it is too early to tell if the Hanoi, Hong Kong and China outbreaks are related. Dick Thompson described the illness to VOA from his base in Geneva. "People begin their illness with a slight fever, headache, flu-like symptoms," said Mr. Thompson. "Some people rapidly progress to needing assistance breathing but some people seem to recover on their own. This agent… we don't know if it is a virus or a bacteria, is proving particularly difficult to identify."

Mr. Thompson says some patients in the outbreaks have been diagnosed as having "atypical pneumonia" because their lungs have become swollen. Typical pneumonia, he says, is characterized by extra fluid in the lungs.

The WHO warning recommends that hospitals isolate patients with atypical pneumonia so as to avoid spreading the disease.

WHO officials say that the Vietnamese outbreak began with a single case in Hanoi. The patient became sick after returning from a trip to Shanghai and Hong Kong.

A different patient died of respiratory illness early Thursday morning in Hong Kong, authorities reported. The man, described as a middle-aged businessman from the United States, was admitted in early March after visiting Vietnam.

Last month, more than 300 people in the Southern Chinese province of Guangdong reported flu-like symptoms. Five people died from the illness and two health workers are being watched for atypical pneumonia.

Mr. Thompson says it is too early to say if the three outbreaks are connected.

Health authorities in Hong Kong have ruled out a connection between the current outbreak and the avian flu virus, which killed at least six people in Hong Kong in the late 1990's.