Health officials said today that 88 more people from one Hong Kong flats complex had fallen ill with the “Asian flu” mystery SARS disease, bringing the total number of cases there to 213 and sparking fears that it will keep spreading.
Hong Kong’s health secretary, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, announced the big rise in severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, cases in a news conference just hours after authorities imposed a tight quarantine on one block of the Amoy Gardens complex.
Yeoh said 107 of the sick people were from Block E of the Amoy Gardens, and most of those cases were from the same two apartment units on several floors of the building, raising the possibility that the disease was spreading vertically.
Asked whether SARS was being spread through the air, Yeoh said that could not be ruled out.
Officials had said previously the illness, which has killed 13 people in Hong Kong and 59 worldwide, seemed to spread through close contact and Yeoh said experts still believed the sickness was being transmitted mostly through droplets, when victims sneezed or coughed and nearby people were infected.
“No-one can rule out this possibility of airborne transmission, because the virus can change so quickly these days,” Yeoh said.
Hong Kong’s health director, Dr Margaret Chan, said early today that no one could leave or enter Block E of the Amoy Gardens without official permission until midnight on April 9.
Anybody violating the order could be fined or jailed.
The outbreak at Amoy Gardens has heightened fears in Hong Kong, where thousands of people are wearing surgical masks and much activity has ground to a halt.
Yeoh said officials believe the virus was brought to Amoy Gardens by a man infected at the Prince of Wales Hospital, where many of Hong Kong’s victims became ill.
The infected person paid four recent visits to his brother, who was staying in Block E, Yeoh said.
The disease was spread to Prince of Wales Hospital by a victim who caught it while visiting the ninth floor of Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel last month.
An infected mainland Chinese medical professor was staying in the hotel and passed the disease to other people who then spread it in Hong Kong and carried it to Vietnam, Singapore and Canada.
Hong Kong has now reported more than 600 cases of SARS, although officials also noted that 60 patients had recovered and been discharged. Worldwide, SARS has infected more than 1,600 people.