Website Hoax Fans Virus Panic
02:01 PM Apr. 01, 2003 PT
HONG KONG — A teenager’s website hoax about a killer virus that is sweeping Hong Kong sparked panicked food buying and hit financial markets on Tuesday, forcing the government to deny it would isolate the entire territory. “We have no plan to declare Hong Kong an infected area,” Director of Health Margaret Chan told reporters. “We have adequate supplies to provide (for) the needs of Hong Kong citizens, and there is no need for any panic run on food.”
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, has now affected almost 1,900 people in at least 12 countries, and 63 are believed to have died. Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populous nation, reported its first three suspected cases on Tuesday. One official said one of the patients had died.
In Hong Kong, where 685 people are infected and 16 have died from the virus, authorities announced on Tuesday that they were taking more than 200 housing estate residents to isolation camps.
The fake website scare fueled dismay in the territory adjoining China’s Guangdong province, where the virus is believed to have originated four months ago. The hoaxer had copied the format of the public Internet portal of the Mingpao, one of Hong Kong’s leading newspapers, and posted a message saying the government would declare the city of 7 million “an infected place.” The daily said it had identified the teenager responsible. Police were investigating.
As the rumor spread, the Hong Kong dollar took a slight knock, and stocks fell for another day as investors calculated the loss to businesses in the tourism, airlines, property and retail sectors. As some supermarkets suddenly found frightened consumers pulling canned and preserved foods from their shelves, Hong Kong medical teams hunted for the reason why over 200 people in one apartment complex in urban Kowloon had fallen ill with SARS.
Protected by white surgical coats, caps, masks and gloves, investigators combed through the Amoy Gardens apartments, home to almost a third of all cases in Hong Kong. Residents there were under official quarantine. A woman outside, calling herself Mrs. Lee, spoke of her family inside: “My granddaughter is so young, and I don’t know how my daughter is doing. I visit them so often. I don’t know whether I have the disease, and I don’t want to infect others.” The government said it was evacuating more than 200 residents of Amoy Gardens to special isolation camps. Finding the cause of the Amoy Gardens outbreak is critical to proving whether the virus has mutated into an airborne plague, which could infect many more people much more quickly. Hong Kong found 75 new SARS cases on Tuesday. So far, doctors believe it has only spread by contact with infected patients, through coughing, spitting and sneezing. Authorities are racing to find carriers of the disease. Many Amoy Gardens residents had already fled their homes before the quarantine, and the government is looking for them.
Hong Kong was also looking for passengers on Thai Airways flight TG 606 from Bangkok to Hong Kong on March 29, the latest infected flight, after an 80-year-old passenger was diagnosed with SARS. Controlling the disease could be a major challenge in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of some 17,000 islands and 210 million people, many of whom live in poverty in urban slums or villages with few health services. But a spokesman for the World Health Organization said it was encouraging that Indonesia appeared to have detected the disease. “One way to contain the spread is to quickly identify cases. While it is bad news if it has arrived in Indonesia, it would be good news that the Indonesian authorities have identified it quickly,” said Iain Simpson, a WHO spokesman.
With Hong Kong so badly affected by the SARS outbreak, businessmen were trying to assess the possible economic damage. “If more and more housing estates are infected, this will bring Hong Kong to a standstill, and our economy will definitely contract,” said Alex Tang of Core Pacific-Yamaichi International. “We may have to lower our estimates for corporate earnings as well,” he added.
Malaysia has just reported a 3 percent drop in daily passenger arrivals at Kuala Lumpur international airport “seven days before and after” SARS was detected in the region. In and around Hong Kong, airline bookings are down 20 to 30 percent, and flights have been canceled. But the epidemic has meant roaring business for cleaning companies. In Hong Kong offices, teams of workers carrying tanks have been spraying and cleaning with disinfectants.
In Singapore, the Catholic Church drained containers of holy water at church entrances and switched to putting communion wafers in the hands of worshippers, instead of on the tongues. Some medical officials have issued pleas for calm. “I can’t say this often enough, the risk to the general public is extremely low,” said medical officer Sheela Basrur in Toronto. Canada has reported more than 120 cases of infection. The hope held out by doctors is that the virus’s detailed makeup will be pinpointed soon. Some victims have been successfully treated using antibodies in serum from recovered patients, which suggests they developed some immunity. The World Health Organization has now reported confirmed SARS cases in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Canada, the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, France, Ireland and Italy.
Source: Reuters, Wired News (medtech)


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