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Ship off Hong Kong issues SARS distress call

Doctors will board cargo vessel to assess crew's symptoms

Pedestrians wearing surgical masks walk in downtown Hong Kong.
Pedestrians wearing surgical masks walk in downtown Hong Kong.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong officials prepared to receive a cargo ship Saturday whose captain issued a distress call, saying 10 of its 24 crew members seem to be suffering symptoms of SARS, government officials said Saturday.

"We have made all necessary preparations to respond to the vessel's call in Hong Kong on humanitarian grounds," Permanent Secretary for Health Carrie Yau told reporters.

The Malaysian-flagged 9,025-ton chemical cargo vessel Bunga Melawis Satu was expected to arrive in Hong Kong waters Sunday morning, Health Director Margaret Chan said.

The sick crew members, all of whom are of Indian origin, displayed SARS symptoms, including fever, cough and joint pain, and one of them reportedly is seriously ill, Chan said.

She noted that the symptoms of severe acute respiratory syndrome are similar to those of such common illnesses as flu and dengue fever.

"At this stage, we should not jump to the conclusion to say whether or not they are suffering from SARS," she said.

The government received the ship's distress call Friday, when it was 100 nautical miles southeast of the southern Chinese island of Hainan, authorities said.

"The director of the marine department had recommended that the ship should land at the nearest port of call, but the ship decided to sail instead to Hong Kong," Yau said.

"According to international regulations, we cannot prohibit any vessel from entering Hong Kong, therefore we need to honor our obligations," Yau added.

The ship, which had been en route from Bangkok, Thailand, to the southern Chinese port of Huangpuj in Guangzhou province, will be moored near outlying Lamma Island, where a team of doctors and nurses will board the ship "to do the initial health assessment," she said.

Those in need of further treatment will be taken to Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong, she said.

Asymptomatic crew members will be held in quarantine for 10 days and the vessel will be disinfected, she said. The World Health Organization has been alerted.


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