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HK orders mystery virus quarantine

Fears over the outbreak have led many Hong Kong residents to buy surgical facemasks.
Fears over the outbreak have led many Hong Kong residents to buy surgical facemasks.

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start quoteFor the sake of our health and for the sake of the health in our community, we must win this battleend quote
-- Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa
• Frequently Asked Questions: SARS 
• Gallery: Mystery virus spreads 
• Country breakdown: Suspected cases of SARS 
• Special report: SARS: Mystery illness on the move 

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong has ordered all schools closed until April 6 and invoked a quarantine law as part of intensified efforts to contain the spread of a deadly pneumonia virus that has killed at least 50 people worldwide.

The law affects just over 1,000 people thought to have had close contact with victims of the virus, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

They have been told to stay home, not attend work, and check in with a medical facility every day for 10 days.

Announcing the move, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said anyone breaking the quarantine could be punished with a fine and/or possible imprisonment.

"For the sake of our health and for the sake of the health in our community, we must win this battle," Tung told a news conference.

Hong Kong is thought to be one of the main centers of the SARS outbreak, which health officials believe originated in neighboring Guangdong province in southern China.

To date 11 people have died in the former British colony and more than 370 are listed as having been infected.

Around the world, some 1,300 people in 12 countries have contracted the illness, the United Nations health body the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

The moves to prevent the disease spreading comes as medical researchers in the United States say evidence is mounting that the cause of the illness is a previously unrecognized form of a virus related to the common cold. (Cold virus evidence)

Singapore schools shut

The decision to close Hong Kong's schools follows a similar move a day earlier in Singapore, where all primary, secondary and junior colleges have been shut until April 6.

Officials in the city-state have also quarantined 840 people who may have had contact with victims. (Quarantine order)

Singapore has recorded two deaths from SARS and at least 50 people are confirmed as having been infected with the virus.

Singapore has already shut schools and ordered those exposed to the virus to stay at home.
Singapore has already shut schools and ordered those exposed to the virus to stay at home.

On Wednesday the Chinese government dramatically upped the number of infections it had recorded, saying 31 people from Guangdong province and three in Beijing had died from the virus.

In all, Chinese health officials said, almost 800 people, mostly in Guangdong, had been infected.

The spread of the disease has caused alarm in Hong Kong, with many residents wearing surgical facemasks in a bid to defend themselves against infection.

On Thursday, British rock group the Rolling Stones announced they were postponing two concerts scheduled for the coming weekend. (Stones cancel)

Three teams have also pulled out of the weekend's annual Rugby Sevens tournament held in the territory.

However, sporting organizers say the event will still go ahead on the advice of health officials who say the risk of catching the disease in an open-air environment is minimal. Masks will be giving out at the tournament, they added.

Health officials say SARS patients are being treated with a cocktail of anti-viral and anti-bacterial drugs, and most are responding well to the medication.

On Thursday researchers at Hong Kong University said latest tests had identified a new virus from the Coronavirus family, which causes common colds, as the primary cause of SARS.

However, they said there studies had indicated that it might combine with a virus from the paramyxovirus family -- which causes includes measles, mumps and canine distemper -- making the effects that much worse.

Announcing the latest results, microbiology professor Malik Peiris said the virus was thought to be able to survive in open air for up to three hours.

During that time he said it was possible to transmit infection through such contact as handshakes or even pressing an elevator button previously touched by a disease victim.

He added that the virus can be killed by wiping alcohol on infected areas.

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