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Deadly Pneumonia Continues to Create Problems in Asia - 2003-03-29

The fall-out from the spread of atypical pneumonia continues to reverberate around Asia. Authorities have ordered schools closed in Hong Kong and Singapore, and other measures are being taken across the region to stem the spread of the disease.

Many people walking the streets of Hong Kong or using public transportation are now wearing face masks, and many others are simply opting to stay home. Hong Kong's normally jammed subway system is half empty. Schools and universities have suspended classes for a week.

Retailers in Hong Kong have reported drops in sales of up to 50 percent. Hotel occupancy is down as much as 70 percent. Restaurants are only half full.

Both Singapore and Hong Kong have taken steps to isolate those who may have come in contact with the disease, called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. In Hong Kong, more than 400 people out of a population of more than six-million have been infected.

On Friday, nearly 60 new cases were identified in Hong Kong. Many of those were residents of a single housing complex. A second local health official was diagnosed with atypical pneumonia. The disease is blamed for 11 deaths in Hong Kong, and more than 50 worldwide.

Doctors believe they have isolated the cause of the disease, a coronavirus similar to the common cold virus. But the unpredictability and apparent ease of infection have people worried.

Hong Kong's annual international Rugby Sevens tournament is going ahead on schedule, with tens-of-thousands of fans in the stadium, but several teams have backed out because of the disease. The music groups Rolling Stones, Andy Williams, Carlos Santana and Moby have all canceled scheduled concerts.

The United States and Australia have both advised their citizens not to travel to Hong Kong, Singapore, China or Vietnam, all of which have experienced the disease, and the region's tourist industries are suffering. Airlines, already hit by a drop in passengers due to the war in Iraq, have been canceling flights to Asia because of a lack of demand.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the Bank of China both announced they had closed some branches, after staff members became sick. Motorola pulled more than 500 production staff out of its mobile phone factory in Singapore when a worker there fell ill. The Singapore government has now quarantined more than 1,500 people with symptoms of the disease.

In Taiwan, thousands of surgical masks are being handed out to travelers and employees at Taipei's international airport.