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Investigators Find Source of Deadly Pneumonia Outbreak - 2003-03-20

Investigators have found that a deadly pneumonia outbreak in Hong Kong originated in a hotel where a visitor from mainland China spread the virus. The discovery links outbreaks in Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore and Vietnam to one that started in southern China four months ago.

Hong Kong health authorities say a doctor from mainland China passed the disease onto six other guests at his hotel in the city last month.

They all developed flu-like symptoms leading to what is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Yeoh Eng-Kiong, Hong Kong's health secretary, says the seven guests staying on the ninth floor spread the sickness to five groups or "clusters" in four cities. "This doctor who stayed in the Metropole hotel on the ninth floor linked up five clusters together, one Singapore, one Toronto and the three in Hong Kong," he said. "We also have now confirmed another patient on the ninth floor - this is the businessman who got sick in Vietnam."

The finding offers evidence that the deadly strain of pneumonia originated in mainland China. Over the past few months 300 people in China contracted the disease, and five died.

Hong Kong is one of the worst hit cities. Dr. Yeoh revealed another pneumonia patient died on Thursday - bringing the death toll in Hong Kong to six. The number of pneumonia patients in the city rose by 20 on Thursday to 165. Ninety-nine of them are hospital workers.

While the hotel links five separate outbreaks, it does not explain the origin of suspected cases that have been found in Australia, the United States, Britain, Germany, Taiwan and Japan.

Scientists around the world say the disease may be caused by a virus belonging to the same family as measles and mumps.

Dr. Yeoh says the virus could spread through droplets and infect mainly people in "close and sustained contact" with a patient. "It's probably when they are very sick they shed a lot of virus, so they are highly infectious at that time," said Yeoh Eng-Kiong.

Hong Kong doctors are reporting some success in treating patients with antiviral drugs and steroids. They say, however, that advanced cases are almost certainly fatal.

The World Health Organization, which spearheaded global efforts to alert hospital and travelers of the outbreaks, links at least 13 deaths to the illness. It urges travelers who have been in Asia to seek medical help if they develop high fever, a cough and other flu-like symptoms.