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Virus outbreak: Air travel fears

Railway officials were handing out masks in Hong Kong.
Railway officials were handing out masks in Hong Kong.

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HONG KONG, China -- Health officials in several Asian countries are taking unprecedented steps to try to stop the spread of a potentially deadly pneumonia virus amid fresh fears air travel is worsening the outbreak.

Officials in Hong Kong, the center of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare, said on Tuesday nine tourists caught the virus on a flight to Beijing from another passenger, a man from mainland China.

The man, now in a Beijing hospital, spread the disease on the March 15 Air China CA 112 flight from Hong Kong to the Chinese capital, said Dr. Leung Pak-yin, deputy director of health in Hong Kong.

The man is believed to have caught SARS from an infected relative he visited in the former British territory.

Authorities are tracking down other passengers on the flight. A plea has been made for passengers on board that flight -- as well as the infected tourists' return Air China flight CA 115 on March 19 -- to contact the territory's health department.

Leung said 26 more cases of SARS had been confirmed in Hong Kong, bringing the total number of patients there to 286.

The virus has spread swiftly across the world, killing 17 people -- 10 in Hong Kong -- and sickening more than 470 in 13 countries, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Symptoms include a fever above 38C (100.4 F), muscle aches, chills and sore throat, followed by shortness of breath, coughing and evidence of pneumonia in a chest X-ray.

SARS has an incubation period of two to seven days before symptoms appear.

Experts believe the disease is linked to an outbreak of atypical pneumonia in the neighboring Guangdong province on the Chinese mainland earlier this year which killed five and infected more than 300.

Quarantine order

The spread of the virus has scared many residents in Hong Kong into wearing surgical masks and avoiding crowded areas.

Railway officials have begun handing out free face masks at the territory's main cross-border railway station. They were hoping to distribute 20,000 masks on Tuesday, and up to a half a million more in the coming days.

Six schools have temporarily closed after several students, a teacher and a bus driver contracted the virus.

Fear of the virus has also prompted several nations to withdraw from the upcoming Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament.

Argentina, Italy and France have all decided to pull out ahead of Friday's start of competition.

In Singapore, about 740 people who may have been exposed to the mystery virus have been ordered to stay home for 10 days in efforts to contain the disease as the number of reported cases there jumped to 65. (Stay at home order)

Elsewhere, four people in Vietnam and three people in Canada have died, while France says it has a suspected case after a male health worker fell sick upon his return from Asia.

Little is still known about the illness, but on Monday U.S. health experts said they had evidence that a new strain of a virus that causes the common cold may be responsible.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said tissue samples taken from two patients infected by SARS had tested positive for a new form of coronavirus. (Cold virus link)

A team of scientists at the University of Hong Kong also said they had isolated a virus that causes SARS and developed a test to identify it.

Officials in the former British territory said that about 100 health care workers were treated with a combination of anti-viral drugs and steroids. Eighty-five percent of the patients were showing signs of improvement.


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