Health officials in Asia are acting aggressively to curtail outbreaks of a deadly flu-like pneumonia that has affected about 14 hundred people worldwide and killed at least forty people in Asia alone. Hong Kong and Singapore have closed schools and some companies there are handing out masks to employees.
A day after Singapore closed schools and imposed a quarantine on more than 700 citizens, Hong Kong's government announced it, too, was considering drastic measures to curtail the spread of the disease.
Hong Kong is one of the worst hit cities. The number of victims with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS soared to more than three hundred this week. Combined with new figures released by China on Wednesday, China and Hong Kong make up well over half of the world's SARS cases.
The illness, which starts with flu-like symptoms and quickly progresses into serious pneumonia, has hit mostly medical workers, their relatives and the relatives of those affected. The disease has now spread to North America and Europe, but the worst affected areas remain southern China, Hong Kong, Hanoi and Singapore.
China's announcement Wednesday of sharply higher numbers in the mainland province just across the border has increased the anxiety of Hong Kong's lawmakers, parents and teachers. They are criticizing Hong Kong officials for not taking drastic measures to curtail the disease.
Officials from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control based in Hong Kong say the government's approach to containing the sickness has been measured. But they add that the daily increase in Hong Kong's SARS cases is worrying when cases in Hanoi and Singapore appear to have stabilized.
"We're in the early stages of the outbreak here," says Joseph Bresee, a CDC doctor stationed in Hong Kong. "We know it spread very well and easily in hospital settings between patients and health care workers, but we don't necessarily know that it spreads well or poorly in other populations."
A WHO travel advisory is warning people traveling in Asia to be alert to the symptoms of SARS. Massive media coverage about the disease is discouraging travelers from visiting Hong Kong, Hanoi, Singapore and southern China.
In Hong Kong, a long anticipated concert by the rock group The Rolling Stones was postponed and some teams planning to compete in an annual rugby tournament have canceled their visit.
A WHO team working in China is trying to assess the extent of SARS cases there; since researchers think the disease may have originated in China, their the conclusions may shed light on how the disease spreads.