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Airports on alert for killer bug


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HONG KONG, China -- Airports and hospitals around the world are on alert for a severe form of pneumonia that has killed nine people, infected close to 200 and appears to be spreading rapidly across the world.

With cases of infection rising the United Nations health body, the World Health Organization (WHO) has taken the rare step of issuing an emergency global travel advisory, putting airlines on alert for cases of suspected pneumonia among passengers.

In response Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways announced it has ordered staff not to check in any passengers who show signs of the illness.

The move was repeated by airlines in Vietnam, Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

Known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the illness doesn't appear to respond to standard treatments, prompting the WHO to describe the infection as a "global threat."

Dick Thompson, the WHO's communications officer told CNN that the organization believed there were three main disease clusters, one in Guangdong province in China, one in Hong Kong and one in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

"Ninety percent of the cases that we know about in Hong Kong and Hanoi are hospital workers and the remaining cases are people who were in close contact with hospital workers," Thompson said.

On Monday South Korea became the latest country to warn its citizens against traveling unnecessarily to mainland China, Hong Kong and Vietnam, where most of the infections have been recorded

Canada, Germany, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Singapore have also reported outbreaks of the disease.

In Hong Kong, thought to be at the center of the outbreak, 95 patients are under observation of whom 83 have pneumonia.

Most of those hospitalized are medical staff, health officials in the territory say.

Medical experts say they still don't know if they are dealing with a virus or bacteria, with doctors in Hong Kong giving patients a broad spectrum of drugs as treatment.

Meanwhile in Hong Kong, Vietnam and southern China, pharmacies have reported a rush on surgical masks from people seeking some kind of protection from the disease.

While U.S. officials say they have an open mind about the possibility bioterrorists may be involved, Hong Kong authorities have said they believe it is unlikely the disease was created in a lab, and have ruled out foul play.

A spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which oversees security on airlines, said all the evidence to date "indicates this is a public health issue unrelated to any act of terrorism."

Travel advisory

However, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said travelers may wish to consider alternatives if they have plans to visit affected areas.

And, in what is likely to be a blow to the tourist sector, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea have advised their nationals against non-urgent travel to Hong Kong, south China and northern Vietnam.

The WHO however says it is not yet necessary to recommend restrictions on travel to any destination.

Most of those infected are doctors, nurses or close relatives who have had contact with infected people.

On Friday an American-Chinese man who flew to Hong Kong from Hanoi with pneumonia died Friday morning and a Vietnamese nurse who treated him in Hanoi's French Hospital died Saturday.

In Vietnam itself, some 46 cases of SARS have been reported to date.

In Canada at least four people have been infected, and two have died after returning from a holiday in Hong Kong.

The illness is characterized by fever higher than 39.3C and respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing or difficulty breathing.

Doctors are being urged to look for the illness in people who have been in close contact with those diagnosed with the disease or who have traveled to areas reporting cases.

The illness appears to be spread through coughing and sneezing, with health officials saying they have no evidence it can be transmitted through brief contact or among large groups of people.

In addition to respiratory symptoms, signs of the illness can include initial rapid onset of high fever followed by muscle aches, headache and sore throat.

Stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash and diarrhea are also common symptoms.

In some cases, those symptoms are followed by pneumonia in both lungs, with the patient needing to be put on a respirator in severe cases.

-- CNN correspondent Patty Davis, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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