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WHO Alert on Mystery Illness Angers Hong Kong Health Official - 2003-03-15

A Hong Kong health official has implicitly criticized the World Health Organization for issuing a worldwide alert about a mysterious illness. More than 40 Hong Kong residents are showing possible symptoms of the disease, which also appears to have struck in Vietnam and China.

The number of people in Hong Kong suffering from a mysterious flu-like illness has risen to at least 47. And eight more of those were diagnosed with atypical pneumonia on Saturday, bringing the number of seriously ill people to 37.

The sickness in Hong Kong is unusual in that it has primarily struck hospital workers, but not persons with compromised immune systems, or the elderly.

A similar outbreak of atypical pneumonia has hit at least 20 health care workers in Hanoi. Last month, five people in China's Guangdong Province died in a mysterious pneumonia outbreak that affected more than 300 people and caused widespread panic.

The disease appears to begin with flu-like symptoms, and in some cases progresses to what is known as atypical pneumonia. Earlier in the week, the World Health Organization issued a rare global alert to warn governments about the three separate outbreaks, but the WHO has not confirmed whether the same agent is causing the separate outbreaks, or even what the agent is.

Dr. Yeoh Eng-Kiong, Hong Kong's Secretary of Health, said Saturday that the WHO should confirm a link among the cases and define the illness better before raising international concern. "In a situation like this I think the greatest fear is the unknown," he said. "If the WHO can come forth with case definitions and come forth to do some coordinating work to see whether there is an actual pattern or similarities in this region. Because they have already alerted the community, if they do not do more work to see whether there is a pattern or a trend or a similarity then it really doesn't do justice."

Dr. Yeoh says a number of neighboring governments including Singapore and Thailand have already warned their citizens to avoid travel to Hong Kong. Australia says it is monitoring the disease outbreaks, and may also warn its citizens against traveling to the affected regions. Doctors and nurses with atypical flu-like symptoms in Singapore and Taiwan are being closely monitored.

Dr. Yeoh says the Hong Kong outbreak is almost entirely confined to health workers in five hospitals and one clinic, and the disease is not threatening the general public. He insists Hong Kong is still a safe place to visit.