Chinese pneumonia outbreak raises concerns

Chinese pneumonia outbreak raises concerns

Wuhan authorities try to identify cause, Singapore prepares to screen travellers

A passenger has her temperature taken at Hong Kong Airport at the height of the Sars outbreak in 2003. Hong Kong and Singapore are preparing to do similar screening on travellers from Wuhan, where a new strain of pneumonia is being investigated. (Reuters File Photo)
A passenger has her temperature taken at Hong Kong Airport at the height of the Sars outbreak in 2003. Hong Kong and Singapore are preparing to do similar screening on travellers from Wuhan, where a new strain of pneumonia is being investigated. (Reuters File Photo)

Chinese health authorities are trying to identify what is causing an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan, as the number of cases rose to 44 and Singapore said it would screen arrivals on flights from the central Chinese city.

Authorities earlier said they were investigating 27 cases of infection after rumours on social media suggested the outbreak could be linked to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

The World Health Organization said it was aware of the reports, is monitoring the situation and is in contact with the Chinese government about it.

“Investigations are still being carried out and authorities cannot yet confirm what pathogen is causing this illness,” said WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic. He added that there are several potential causes of viral pneumonia, many of which are more common than Sars.

Municipal health officials in Wuhan said they had ruled out common respiratory diseases, such as influenza, bird flu and adenovirus infection, as the cause.

Eleven of those infected were in critical condition and the rest stable, they said, adding that all had been isolated and doctors were observing 121 people with whom they had been in close contact.

Clean-up efforts at a seafood market where some victims were vendors have been completed, the city officials said. No obvious human-to-human transmission had been seen and no medical staff had been infected, they added.

On Friday, Singapore’s health ministry said it would begin temperature screening of passengers arriving on flights from Wuhan.

In 2003, Chinese officials covered up a Sars outbreak for weeks before a growing death toll and rumours forced the government to reveal the epidemic, apologise and vow full transparency regarding future outbreaks.

The disease, which emerged in southern China late in 2002, spread rapidly to other cities and countries in 2003. More than 8,000 people were infected and 775 died.

Wuhan police this week said they had summoned eight people who “posted and forwarded false information online, causing adverse social impact”.

The WHO has activated its incident-management system at the country, regional and global level and is ready to launch a broader response if it’s needed, the UN agency’s regional office in Manila said in Twitter posts on Saturday.

“China has extensive capacity to respond to public health events and is responding proactively and rapidly to the current incident in Wuhan –- isolating patients, tracing close contacts, cleaning up the market, and searching for the cause and for additional cases,” the WHO said.

The seafood market, which has since been closed, also sold birds, pheasants and snakes, along with organs of rabbits and other wildlife. That has triggered concern about the potential jump of an unknown virus to humans — reminiscent of Sars.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment on the infectious source.

It’s not known whether a Sars-like “coronavirus” has been identified, although there have been “numerous unsubstantiated reports mentioning a novel coronavirus that is Sars-like”. the International Society for Infectious Diseases’ ProMED-mail programme said in an email on Friday.

Hong Kong, meanwhile, has upgraded its public health response level to “serious” — the second-highest level in its three-tier system with the topmost being emergency — according to the Department of Health.

“Health surveillance at ports will be stepped up, public and private hospitals and medical staff are being told to be aware of any suspected cases,” said Sophia Chan, the city’s secretary for food and health. “Travelers returning to Hong Kong with respiratory illnesses will have their travel history reviewed.”

Authorities said thermal imaging systems will be deployed as part of increased fever surveillance at boundary checkpoints.

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