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Mystery death sparks health alert

Hong Kong has been hit by a series of scares over bird flu.
Hong Kong has been hit by a series of scares over bird flu.

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HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued a global pneumonia alert after an outbreak of a mysterious respiratory illness killed one man and infected more than 50 hospital staff in Hong Kong and Vietnam.

An American businessman died on Thursday morning in a Hong Kong hospital to which he was admitted on March 6 after falling ill in Hanoi, according to a Hong Kong government spokesmen.

The 50-year-old man, who was not identified, had been flown in from Hanoi, where he had been admitted to hospital shortly after arriving from Shanghai and Hong Kong with severe respiratory problems, said WHO and Hong Kong authorities.

The cause of his illness is unknown.

Following his admission, more than 20 staff in the Hanoi hospital fell sick with similar symptoms and some have developed pneumonia and acute respiratory distress requiring assisted breathing on a respirator, the WHO said.

Some of the victims in Hanoi remain critically ill, it said.

In Hong Kong, more medical staff have fallen ill with flu-like symptoms. By midday on Thursday, 32 hospital staff had been admitted, with 19 of them showing initial signs of pneumonia, said a Hong Kong health spokeswoman.

None of those in Hong Kong are known to have had any contact with the American. One of the 19 is in serious condition.

Race to identify virus

Hong Kong's health minister Yeoh Eng-kiong said the Hong Kong cases may have been caused by a fast-spreading respiratory virus but more tests were being carried out to identify the strain.

"The rate of infection is very high. At first it's a respiratory illness and it deteriorates into pneumonia," he said.

"There is a possibility that it can mutate or it may be a virus that is not known to us," Yeoh told reporters.

News of the infections worried many in Hong Kong. In some of the territory's hospitals, staff and patients, and even those seeking outpatient treatment, wore surgical masks.

The WHO said no link has so far been found between the cases in Hong Kong and Hanoi but investigations were ongoing.

"The outbreaks in Hanoi and Hong Kong appear to be confined to the hospital environment. Those at highest risk appear to be staff caring for the patients," the WHO said.

Patients with atypical pneumonia that may be related to these outbreaks should be isolated with barrier nursing techniques and any suspect cases should be reported to national health authorities, it added.

The cases in Hong Kong are of particular concern in the tiny and congested territory, coming so soon after after a much-feared bird-flu virus killed a man and infected his son in February.

Pneumonia is common in Hong Kong where some 300 people are admitted into hospital every week, but a government spokesman said there was cause for concern now.

"This outbreak is in a single hospital and these (32) staff have been going in and out of a certain ward," he said.

"But it is definitely not H5N1," the spokesman said, referring to the deadly bird-flu virus, which sparked a global WHO alert and widespread panic in February.

Six people in Hong Kong died in 1997 of the avian virus, which jumped mysteriously from bird to human.

There was an outbreak of atypical pneumonia in China's southern Guangdong province in mid-February which infected 305 people, killing five of them. It is not known if the Guangdong cases are linked to the ones in Hanoi or Hong Kong.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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