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Flu-Like Virus Spreads in Hard-Hit Hong Kong and China

BY Admin  April 6, 2003 at 2:56 PM EDT

The Hong Kong government announced Sunday that the total number of cases of the mysterious illness had risen to 842 and that two more Hong Kong patients had died from the disease, taking the local death toll to 22.

Of the newly infected, nine were healthcare workers and eleven were residents from a quarantined apartment block in Amoy Gardens, a housing complex where many cases have developed.

In the largest outbreak of the disease outside of Asia, an eighth person died from SARS in Canada Saturday, and health authorities were investigating whether a ninth death was caused by the virus. All eight deaths were in Toronto. As of Saturday, the Canadian government had reported 82 probable cases of SARS.

The pneumonia-like disease, which may have originated in southern China has been spread around the world by air travelers.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Sunday that China was capable of curbing the spread of SARS even as the toll nationwide climbed to 1,247 infected.

SARS is the first big crisis facing Wen’s administration, which took office in March.

Wen declared it was safe to travel to mainland China.

“The Chinese government and people warmly welcome friends worldwide to come to our country for tourism, visits or to engage in commercial activities,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted Wen as saying.

“The Chinese government is fully capable of controlling the spread of atypical pneumonia,” Wen said. He did not elaborate.

Even as the Chinese government pledged to bring the spread of the disease under control, a team of World Health Organization experts was in China’s southern Guangdong province, where the overwhelming majority of the SARS deaths and infections have occurred in China, to investigate the outbreak.

The four-member team is most interested in “the phenomenon of ‘super spreaders’ — people who seem to spread their disease to a lot of other people,” said the WHO team leader, Dr. Robert Breiman.

Figuring out why they are so infectious “may lead to public health approaches that will be very effective for control,” he said.

Experts have linked SARS to a new form of coronavirus, but Chinese specialists say they found a rare airborne form of chlamydia — a virus usually transmitted through sexual contact — in many SARS victims.

That finding has raised another question: Is the sickness caused by one virus or bacterium and made more lethal by a combination of the two?

“If you have one pathogen and you get hit with, say, coronavirus, [do] you get a particularly bad disease?” Breiman said. “Or are you more likely to transmit? Do you become … a ‘super spreader’?”

The WHO team, which includes specialists who work in the United States, Germany, Wales and Bangladesh, planned to stay in Guangdong through Tuesday.

The pneumonia-like virus has killed more than 90 people and infected over 2,400 in almost 20 countries.