China fought what could be a new pneumonia strain after 59 people contracted a mysterious respiratory disease in central China, causing fears of another Sars outbreak.
Health officials are concerned about the upcoming Spring Festival in late January when China celebrates the lunar new year and millions of people will travel across the country to return home. Authorities have warned citizens that they are looking for symptoms such as fever, breathing difficulties or body pain.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said health officials “tightened measures across borders”. Since Monday, all travelers arriving by train from Wuhan have been subjected to body temperature checks.
Wuhan health authorities reported 27 cases of unidentified pneumonia-like illness for the first time in late December, which has risen to 59 since Sunday. Patients, seven of whom were critically ill, were placed in quarantine. No deaths were reported.
Authorities said epidemiologists have ruled out the possibility of Sars, the deadly respiratory virus that has spread to at least 37 countries and killed more than 800 people in 2002 and 2003, an epidemic compounded by a government cover-up.
Wuhan officials said there was no “clear” evidence of human-to-human transmission. Investigators also ruled out Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS) and avian influenza. Symptoms of the mysterious virus include fever, respiratory problems and invasive lesions to both lungs, shown on radiographs.
Some patients worked in a fish market in the city, according to the health commission, suggesting the possibility of animal-to-human transmission. Several shops at the market also sold wild animals including birds, snakes, deer, marmots, according to Chinese media reports.
The market has been closed since New Years. Nearby shopkeepers said they were concerned about the apparent outbreak but continued normal operations.
“Of course we are worried but we don’t wear face masks. It’s not good for business and nothing has been confirmed yet,” said a woman nicknamed Huang, who sells glasses near the fish market.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Sunday it was following the situation closely and was in “close contact” with the Chinese authorities. “There is limited information to determine the overall risk of this reported cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology,” said the organization.
Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is an important urban center with a population of over 10 million inhabitants. Local authorities have identified 120 close contacts that are now under medical observation, according to WHO. Wuhan authorities said they were also carrying out additional hygiene and hygiene measures and investigating the cause of the virus.
Elsewhere in the region, citizens have prepared for the worst. In Hong Kong, which was severely affected by the Sars epidemic, buyers have accumulated face masks. Hospitals have reported 21 patients with fever and other respiratory symptoms who recently visited Wuhan. Seven have been discharged and the other cases so far have not been shown to be related to the Wuhan cluster.
In Singapore, where travelers from the city are now required to undergo temperature screening, a three-year-old Chinese girl who had gone to Wuhan was placed in quarantine. On Sunday, officials said he had a respiratory infection in common childhood.
Authorities also seem concerned about the spread of panic, with censors on Weibo blocking the hashtag #WuhanSARS. While Chinese media have reported the outbreak, citizens who remember Sars’ cover-up are still wary of information released by their government.
Online Internet users questioned the authorities by assuring that there were no examples of “clear human-to-human transmission” of the infection.
One user wrote: “Should we wait for it to be” obvious “before solving the situation?”
Additional Lillian Yang reports