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Singapore fears possible SARS case, seals off wards

( 2003-09-09 11:51) (Agencies)

Singapore sealed off three wards at its largest hospital Tuesday after preliminary tests indicated a man may have caught SARS, possibly the world's first case of the deadly virus since a global outbreak ended in July.

Singapore General Hospital shut the wards to all visitors after the man, a virology laboratory worker, had tested positive late Monday for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, said Bey Mui Leng, a Ministry of Health spokeswoman.

"We need results from further tests before confirming this as SARS. But initial tests appeared positive," said Bey.

The potentially deadly respiratory disease originated in southern China and was spread early this year to 30 countries by travelers. It infected nearly 8,500 people globally and more than 800 died, including 33 in Singapore.

The World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak contained worldwide on July 5, expressed some doubt about the latest case and said more tests were needed before determining whether the man -- an ethnic Chinese Singaporean -- had SARS.

"At this stage, we are treating it as a suspected case -- a perplexing case -- but we're not treating it as probable SARS," Peter Cordingley, WHO's head of public information in the Western Pacific region, said in Manila.

"We have to do a lot of testing before we know what this gentleman has," he added.

The man had worked in a laboratory at Kent Ridge, an area affiliated with the National University of Singapore. Local media reports said he was not involved in SARS-related research and had not traveled to China or Hong Kong recently.

He had checked into the accident and emergency department at Singapore General before being rushed late Monday to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, whose staff exclusively treated SARS patients during Singapore's last outbreak of the virus.

The health ministry planned to hold a news conference at about 0830 GMT.


News of the latest suspected case has sparked alarm in Asia, where the last outbreak extracted a heavy economic toll as travelers cut flights, consumers stayed home and hotel rooms emptied. In Singapore, SARS triggered the economy's biggest-ever quarterly contraction in the April to June period.

Hong Kong said it was seeking more information on the Singapore patient and was on high alert.

Financial markets in Singapore took an early hit. The bellwether Straits Times index lost 0.70 percent and the local currency slipped to near one-month lows against the dollar, trading at 1.7600 against 1.7564 Monday.

Before Singapore announced its fears of a new SARS case on Monday, the head of the WHO had warned health specialists meeting in Manila of a possible resurgence of the disease and urged nations to boost surveillance.

Temperature checks and other health controls won Singapore international kudos for swiftly halting the virus earlier this year. It was taken off the WHO's list of SARS-hit regions on May 31, about three weeks after the last patient was isolated.

Although many residents said they feared a second outbreak they doubted it would be as bad as the last one.

"The government has experience in this and they are very prepared this time, so I don't see it becoming as serious as the last time," said Shyam Tekwani, a lecturer at Nanyang Technology University. "Definitely Singapore provided a case study to the rest of the world as to how it can be managed."

During Singapore's last outbreak, about 8,000 people were quarantined. The island took aggressive measures to contain the disease, carrying out temperature checks at border points, hospitals and hotels, and installing closed-circuit TV cameras in homes to enforce the quarantine.

Health officials were investigating people who may have had contact with the latest suspected SARS patient, but it was unclear if a quarantine would be ordered.

The virus is believed to have jumped from animals to humans in China late last year.

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