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Living in the midst of a killer virus

By CNN's Marianne Bray

The mood in Hong Kong is very somber.
The mood in Hong Kong is very somber.

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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 -- In pharmacies across Hong Kong surgical masks and thermometers are disappearing off the shelves as a killer virus without a cure terrorizes the territory.

While the war plays out in Iraq, here a battle is being waged against a deadly illness which has led to eleven deaths and infected almost 370 people in this congested city of 6.9 million, in just a matter of weeks.

As the territory is gripped by pneumonia paranoia Hong Kong's Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, has said the city is "facing its most serious contagious disease threat in 50 years."

While south China has a history of strange viruses, partly because humans and animals live in such close contact, the mood in Hong Kong has become decidedly somber, as the numbers of infected people rise every day and a cure eludes doctors.

On Thursday alone, 51 people were admitted to hospitals for symptoms of the illness, known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

That group included 22 people who lived on different floors of one apartment building, who probably caught it by inhaling droplets left behind when a carrier coughed in the elevator or lobby.

The virus is said to survive for three hours outside of the body, meaning it can be transmitted through a handshake or even pressing an elevator button previously touched by a disease victim.

At the start of the outbreak, the mystery illness had a mortality rate of 4 percent and 20 percent of those who caught it needed intensive care treatment.

As stories circulated of hospitals running out of space, health workers being stricken, air passengers catching the virus while flying, and of many patients being kept alive on respiratory defibrillators, Hong Kongers have become very anxious.

On street corners in the city's Central district, on buses and trams jockeying along Queens Road and on the congested underground MTR system, masked Hong Kongers watch strange scenes unfold.

People scatter at the merest cough or sneeze as authorities say the mystery virus can be spread through droplets.

Pharmacies are running out of masks almost as soon as stocks arrive, and the recommended N95 and other surgical masks are hard to find, so that customers are making do with the flimsiest alternatives.

Street scenes

Surgical masks are the latest rage.
Surgical masks are the latest rage.

Tartan masks, paper and cotton fragments of masks and handerkchiefs are all being used as alternatives, some with huge gaping holes. Others just clutch handkerchiefs to their noses as they walk the streets.

Pharmacies lucky enough to still have masks are limiting sales to five per customer.

Amid evidence the virus is spread through casual contact, schools have been closed until April 6 and the government has imposed a quarantine on people who have had close contact with infected patients.

The mystery killer comes at a bad time for the city, which seemed to be recovering from a downturn that has seen property prices fall 65 percent since 1996 and confidence sag.

As tourist and export figures began to rise this year, Hong Kong had become more upbeat and was ready for a party weekend.

The British rock group the Rolling Stones had two concerts scheduled, and thousands were gearing up for the Rugby Sevens, a sporting party which draws punters from around the world.

Rumours spread

Hong Kong remains the most seriously affected city.
Hong Kong remains the most seriously affected city.

Over the last few days, mobile phones have been buzzing with tales the annual tournament was going to be televised and spectator-less.

But while the Rolling Stones have postponed their shows, organizers for the Sevens said the event was very much on after health officials said the risk of catching the disease in an open-air environment was minimal.(Stones cancel)

Authorities are working hard to reassure residents, saying infected patients are being treated with a cocktail of anti-viral and anti-bacterial drugs, and many are responding well to the medication.

And despite the dampened mood in this city, doctors and researchers are more upbeat than when the virus first broke out.

They have come up with a speedy diagnostic kit to identify victims and say they are optimistic the virus can be treated with a high success rate if infected people seek medical advice early enough.

Already the number of sufferers who need intensive care treatment has dropped from 20 percent to around 12 percent.

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