Hong Kong's SARS victims sent to quarantine camps

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong invoked a colonial-era law Tuesday to quarantine more than 240 people in countryside vacation camps, part of redoubled efforts to halt the spread of a mysterious flu-like illness that has killed at least 64 people around the world.

Nations across Asia implemented new measures to contain the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. It first was reported in China and its initial symptoms include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. There still is no cure.

Singapore shut down one of its largest colleges for a week, Taiwan banned boats from sailing from mainland China to an outlying island chain, and the World Economic Forum postponed a meeting of economic and government leaders in Beijing until autumn.

Numerous cases

Some of the most severe measures were being taken in Hong Kong, which has recorded 16 deaths from SARS. Out of more than 1,600 SARS cases globally, 685 have been in Hong Kong. Residents of Block E of the Amoy Gardens Apartment complex were being moved Tuesday night to the camps, normally used by vacationers, said Dr. Leung Pak-yin, deputy director of health. The apartment block already was sealed off to contain the illness.

The government was invoking a law dating to colonial days intended to halt the spread of infectious diseases. The people sent to the quarantine camps will get checkups and free meals, Leung said.

Leung said at a news conference that an "environmental factor" in the sealed-off building might be causing the spread, but he did not elaborate. There has been speculation a sewage leak might have spread the disease among residents of apartment units at one end of the 33-story building.

At least 237 people from Amoy Gardens were hospitalized with SARS, 121 of them from Block E, Hong Kong health officials said Tuesday night. The building was sealed off Monday.

The World Health Organization will consider advising people not to travel to Hong Kong if authorities there cannot figure out how the disease is spreading, said Dr. David Heymann, the WHO's infectious diseases chief.

Spooked Hong Kong residents rushed out to stock up on supplies after hearing of an Internet rumor Tuesday that Hong Kong would be declared an "infected city." Officials scrambled to quash it -- making multiple phone calls to journalists and even sending text messages to their mobile phones.

On Tuesday night, Hong Kong and Thailand each reported another death of a SARS patient, bringing the worldwide total to at least 64.

Singapore's Education Ministry announced Tuesday it was shutting down Ngee Ann Polytechnic college to halt the disease. In Singapore's airports, nurses examining arriving passengers said they had intercepted at least seven suspected cases of SARS in less than 24 hours.

Seven nurses clad in yellow hospital gowns and surgical masks were the first to greet passengers on a flight from Beijing as soon as they stepped into the terminal from the boarding bridge.

Singapore's Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang has said the disease likely entered the island nation through the airport. All of Singapore's 92 reported cases of SARS can be traced back to five people who traveled to Hong Kong.

In Geneva, the World Economic Forum said it has postponed until fall a Beijing meeting of business and government leaders because participants were concerned about the disease. The Olympic Council of Asia also decided to shift the site of its April 22-23 meeting from Vietnam, where four people have died from SARS, to Thailand.

The World Health Organization said researchers hope to pinpoint the cause of the illness soon. A WHO spokesman said Tuesday that investigators still were awaiting permission to visit Guangdong, where they hope to find clues into the disease's origin and spread.

"The Chinese government has not covered up. There is no need," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Tuesday. "We have nothing to hide."

Barely an hour later, a CNN satellite feed to an apartment compound housing foreigners in Beijing went black during a report on the illness -- something that has happened in the past when the news network reported about the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement or other stories that make the communist government uneasy.

In other developments:

  • Switzerland on Tuesday banned exhibitors from hiring anyone who has arrived in the country from China, Hong Kong, Singapore or Vietnam since March 1 for the Basel World Watch and Jewelry Fair, which opens Thursday.

  • A fourth case of the disease was confirmed in Germany on Tuesday, while Spain reported its first suspected case there since a false alarm last month.

  • In Australia, authorities Tuesday announced the nation's first case: a man who was in Singapore, where tough quarantine measures now are in place. He has recovered and the illness has not spread, health authorities said.

  • Toronto authorities reported that at least two children had been hospitalized with the disease and three others had symptoms. A health emergency was declared in Ontario province.

  • Indonesia on Tuesday reported the nation's first three suspected cases of SARS, including one woman who died. The cases have not been confirmed but the symptoms match.

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