HONG KONG March 20 —
The global spread of the mysterious flu-like illness that has
killed 10 people in the past three weeks appears to have started
with a guest in a tourist hotel here.
Hong Kong health officials said Thursday that other guests who
caught the disease then carried it to a Hong Kong hospital, Vietnam,
Singapore and Canada. Three of the seven people who stayed on the
ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel died from severe acute
respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
There are now 306 people sick with the disease, according to the
World Health Organization. About half those are in Hong Kong, the
vast majority in Asia. There are 11 suspected cases in the United
The cause of the illness remains unknown, but experts believe the
most likely explanation is a new virus. There is no known
Hong Kong health officials have traced the outbreak to a
professor from China's Guangdong province who stayed at the
Metropole Hotel on Feb. 21-22. He died March 4.
His case bolsters the belief that the outbreak stems from one
that began last November in the southern part of Guangdong, where
300 people were sickened and five died.
The Metropole, a bland-looking, rectangular building, is a three-
or four-star hotel located in a residential district of Hong Kong's
Kowloon peninsula, an area where many tourists stay. It is a short
bus ride away from the main tourist area of Tsim Sha Tsui.
During the two days the infected Chinese professor stayed on the
ninth floor, three women from Singapore were guests on the same
floor. After they returned home, they became ill. Singapore's Health
Ministry said all 34 Singapore SARS patients had been in contact
with the three women.
An American businessman from Shanghai also stayed on the ninth
floor of the Metropole before flying on to Vietnam and falling ill,
"His name was Johnny Chen," said Hoang Thuy Long, director of
Vietnam's National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemics. "When Mr.
Johnny Chen came to Vietnam, he was actually in an incubation
Two days after his arrival, he was hospitalized at the Hanoi
French Hospital, but asked to be moved to a hospital in Hong Kong
where he died.
A third Metropole guest during that time was a 78-year-old woman
from Toronto. She returned home where she infected her grown son.
In addition, a Hong Kong man visited a friend on the ninth floor
while the professor was there, health authorities said.
That man has been identified as the Hong Kong "index patient" who
spread the disease to the Prince of Wales Hospital, where dozens of
workers have been sickened, said Health Department spokeswoman Sally
It remains unclear how the disease would have spread in the
hotel. One expert has speculated it could have spread from the
"Perhaps they all stood outside the elevator at the same time and
someone sneezed or coughed," said Dr. Margaret Chan, the director of
the Hong Kong Health Department.
None of the 200 to 300 workers at the Metropole have become ill,
Since the outbreak, hotel spokeswoman Anita Kwan said, guests had
been given a letter explaining what had happened. She said none had
been scared away.
But a group of tourists from Shanghai emerged wearing surgical
masks early Thursday and told reporters they were seeking different
"The Health Department has already indicated that the germ
doesn't exist here anymore," Kwan said Wednesday night. But she
added that the ninth floor won't be reopened until it has been
Dr. David Heymann, WHO's communicable diseases chief, said
Thursday the cases at the hotel do not diminish the view that the
illness is spread only by close contact because such a scenario has
not been ruled out.
"There is no evidence of casual contact," he said. "Speculation
can go from it being a pigeon sitting on a window sill, flapping its
wings outside four rooms, to anything under the sun."
If the illness was spread as easily as passing somebody in a
corridor, or through the air conditioning system, cases would likely
have shown up elsewhere in the hotel, experts said.
While new cases continue to turn up daily, health officials are
encouraged to see that reports of recovery are also on the rise.
"In Vietnam there are 20 patients now out of 56 who are much
better, and some are ready for discharge from the hospital," Heymann
A Singapore doctor and his wife and mother-in-law who were on
their way home when they were quarantined in Frankfurt, Germany, are
also recovering, doctors there said.
It is unclear whether medications are helping them recover or
whether they would have got better anyway.
On the Net:
World Health Organization:
|Two Chinese women wearing
protective masks walk on a street outside a hospital in
Guangzhou, in south China's Guangdong province, Thursday,
March 20, 2003. The World Health Organization is trying to
determine whether an outbreak of a mystery illness in
Guangzhou in November is connected to similar pneumonia
outbreaks throughout Asia which are believed to have killed 11
people in recent weeks. China's Health Minister on Wednesday
said the mystery illness had been brought under control in
China. (AP Photo/Greg
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