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Mystery disease in HK may be viral infection
By Alfons Chan (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-11-18 01:31

The mystery respiratory illness that is plaguing a Hong Kong hospital is likely to be the result of a viral, and not bacterial, infection.

Alex Chan Kwok-hing, chief of paediatric services at Caritas Medical Centre, where the infections surfaced, said this yesterday at a special meeting convened by the health services panel at the Legislative Council.

The total number of cases increased to 31 yesterday after one more patient showed signs of fever and respiratory tract infection.

Four children are still down with fever, said a Hospital Authority spokesman.

"Patients have recovered quickly from the infection and symptoms of fever subsided within seven days, suggesting that it is probably of a viral nature," Chan told the Legislative Council.

He said all the children who had contracted the disease had been quarantined, as it was unclear whether they could spread the infection.

"Most of the patients are orphans, or children with severe mental and physical disabilities, and they are prone to illnesses. On average, we have up to two cases of fever and pneumonia per day in the unit, with an annual death rate of 5-10 per cent," he said.

Culture and virus tests are being conducted on the infected children at the hospital, and results are expected between the end of this week and early next week.

According to health officials, the unidentified illness is unrelated to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) or the H5N1 strain of avian flu.

Responding to public concern over the outbreak, health officials at the meeting said monitoring of new and infectious diseases has been intensified, and the administration has learned a lesson from the incident.

They added that if the seriousness of the disease were foreseeable, they would have activated a "green" code -- or the lowest in a three-phase warning system on hospital infections earlier.

But legislators including Albert Cheng King-hon expressed disappointment at the government's lack of foresight, adding that it had still not learned a lesson from the SARS outbreak.

The Health, Welfare and Food Bureau will submit reports to the Legislative Council on the progress of isolation wards at hospitals, guidelines for medical institutions to deal with new outbreaks, and review the "green" code alert in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the Education and Manpower Bureau yesterday reminded schools and parents to take precautionary measures against the spread of seasonal influenza in the wake of the mysterious outbreak.

Parents should take children's body temperature before sending them to school, while schools should check students' temperature record sheets and make random spot checks, said a spokesman for the bureau.

The bureau also urged schools to follow the Health Advice on the Prevention of Influenza issued by the Department of Health.

Students should avoid contact with live birds or poultry; cover their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing; keep their hands clean and wash their hands properly; and avoid going to school and consult their doctor promptly if they develop respiratory symptoms, the spokesman added.

If there is an unusual pattern of illness or sick leave among students, schools should notify the relevant District School Development section of the bureau and the Central Notification Office for Infectious Diseases of the Department of Health by phone (2477 2772), said the bureau.

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