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March 28, 2003

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Disease Heightens Worries Over Air Travel
Disease Heightens Worries Over Air Travel As WHO Warns Possible Victims Should Not Fly

The Associated Press

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HONG KONG March 28

Worries intensified that a deadly flu-like illness hitting Asia was spreading via air travel after world health officials said people exposed to the disease should be barred from planes.

Underlining the latest worries, Singapore Airlines announced on Friday that a flight attendant on a flight through Frankfurt with an infected doctor had been diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

The disease has sickened more than 1,400 and caused 50 deaths most of them in Asia, prompting Singapore in recent days to close all of its schools and the Rolling Stones to cancel weekend concerts in Hong Kong.

Taiwan announced measures Friday requiring arriving passengers to fill out new forms about their health.

The region's already-suffering travel industry was concerned about more lost business, with the war in Iraq compounding its troubles.

Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Tok Chong was quoted Friday as warning that his city-state's tourism business will likely be "hurt very badly" by the SARS outbreak, which has prompted travel warnings from several nations.

The World Health Organization said Thursday that people with SARS symptoms high fever, dry cough, sore throat and joint pain or those who may have been exposed should be kept off airplanes.

The Geneva-based WHO said airlines should be on the lookout for possible SARS victims among people flying out of hard-hit places, including Hong Kong; Singapore; Toronto; Hanoi, Vietnam; Taipei, Taiwan; Beijing; Shanghai; and China's Guangdong province.

More than half of the SARS cases and deaths were in Guangdong, and a sick medical professor from there brought the disease to Hong Kong last month, spreading it to people who then passed it on to Vietnam, Singapore and Canada when they flew to those places.

Health officials believe the infection is spread largely by very close contact through coughing and sneezing. But some people who are infected but showing no symptoms may be transmitting it, WHO said Thursday.

The Singapore Airlines flight attendant who was on the plane from New York to Frankfurt "has a fever and has been classed as a probable case" of SARS, airline spokesman Innes Willox said.

Hong Kong, which has reported 11 deaths out of 367 SARS cases, announced a quarantine Thursday night for residents who may have been infected. Hong Kong also said it would require arriving travelers to fill out health forms, and send sick people to checkpoints at each immigration post.

Hong Kong's two passenger airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair, for some days have been screening passengers who appear ill.

Cathay, the biggest in Hong Kong, declined Friday to detail any drop in business, but spokeswoman Rosita Ng said the war in Iraq was combining with SARS to hurt traffic. "It's a complicated situation," Ng said.

Dragonair has suffered a "significant number of cancellations" from tour groups but a smaller drop in individual passengers, according to a spokeswoman who identified herself only by the surname Lee. Dragonair might have to cut back its services, Lee said without elaborating.

The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong on Friday quoted Abacus Distribution Systems, which runs an airline ticket reservation system, as saying bookings have fallen by 30 percent to 35 percent in a week.

Taiwanese Health Department Director Twu Shing-jer announced that foreigners arriving in Taiwan will be asked to fill out a form detailing their travel over the previous two weeks.

Taiwan's government declared SARS a contagious disease late Thursday, allowing authorities to quarantine people suspected of contracting it. Twu said the measure was needed because some 10,000 Taiwanese travel each day between Taiwan and mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau.

WHO experts say that labs have zeroed in on coronavirus one of the causes of the common cold as a probable cause of the illness. But they also were looking at whether a second germ, the paramyxovirus, could be working in tandem with the coronavirus, WHO experts said.

Although no treatment for SARS is known to work, most patients seem to get better with normal hospital care. About 10 percent fare badly, but many of those have other illnesses that complicate their care, such as diabetes or heart disease.

photo credit and caption:
School girls and adults all wear protective masks while one uses a handkerchief at a Hong Kong bus stop, Thursday, March 27, 2003, in an attempt to protect themselves from the mysterious flu-like illness which is spreading in Hong Kong and other parts of the world. The illness, severe acute respiratory system, or SARS, has now infected more than 1,300 people in more than a dozen countries and is blamed for at least 53 deaths, most of them in Asia. (AP Photo/Anat Givon)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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