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HK mystery virus spreads

Health officials says at present little is known about the virus.
Health officials says at present little is known about the virus.

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HONG KONG, China -- A highly contagious flu-like virus that has killed one man and sickened dozens of others has spread to staff in three more Hong Kong hospitals.

The mystery illness has prompted the World Health Organization to issue a global pneumonia alert and send a medical expert to Hong Kong to assist efforts to identify the virus and determine its source.

Health officials say there is no sign the virus has spread beyond the hospitals to the community at large but have urged people in the territory to maintain strict standards of hygiene, especially towards the young and elderly.

"All private and public hospitals have been urged to step up infection control measures and report to the [health] department unusual pattern of illness," said Dr Margaret Chan, Hong Kong's Director of Health.

Aware of the potential for public alarm, the government's health department has promised to give daily briefings on the progress of the investigation.

By mid-afternoon Friday, 43 staff at four Hong Kong hospitals were being treated for flu-like symptoms, of which 29 were exhibiting signs of pneumonia.

Doctors say two are in a serious condition.

Little is known about the virus other than that it is extremely contagious and can be transmitted through coughing and sneezing.

Alert

The WHO alert was issued following the death Thursday of an unidentified 50-year-old American businessman.

He had flown from Shanghai to Hong Kong and then to Hanoi, where he was admitted to a private international hospital with severe respiratory problems.

That hospital has since closed after 20 medical staff fell ill, some developing pneumonia and acute respiratory distress.

The businessman himself was flown back to Hong Kong last week for further treatment but died in hospital on Thursday morning.

The outbreak follows the latest in a series of scares over so-called bird flu to hit Hong Kong.

It also comes after last month's outbreak of severe pneumonia in southern China's Guangdong province, which infected 305 people and killed five.

However, doctors say at present there is no sign of a link between either outbreak and the current cases in Hanoi and Hong Kong.


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