Mystery illness pops up in China -- here’s what we know so far

Nearly 60 hospitalized with form of viral pneumonia

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An unidentified form of viral pneumonia has sent 59 people to hospitals in China, the Associated Press reported this week.

As of Sunday, seven of those people were listed in critical condition.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s health chief said that the respiratory illness -- which has a cause that remains unknown -- will be added to an official list of diseases that medical practitioners are required to report to the government.

So, what is this mystery illness?

Here’s what we know so far.

The 59 hospitalized patients are in the mainland Chinese city of Wuhan, in central Hubei province. Municipal authorities have ruled out SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed 700 people in 2002 and 2003.

In Hong Kong, more than a dozen patients were being treated for symptoms including fever and respiratory infection after recent visits to Wuhan. It is not clear whether they have the same illness as the Wuhan patients.

Speaking at a news conference, the health chief, Sophia Chan, said the “severe respiratory disease associated with a novel infectious agent” will be added to a list of reportable infectious diseases in Hong Kong’s Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance.

With the regulation, it means the government can take stronger measures against the spread of certain diseases.

Actions under the ordinance could include enforcing quarantines or limiting the movement of people who are suspected to have infections.

“Under the amendment, medical practitioners will have to report suspected cases as well as carry out appropriate investigations and follow-ups to the Center for Health Protection under the Department of Health,” Chan said.

Health alert

The U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan issued a health alert Tuesday for the pneumonia outbreak, warning travelers to Wuhan to avoid animals, as well as animal markets and products.

The disease may have been brought to China by visitors, Hong Kong authorities said in a previous AP report.

Fears have been spreading about this mysterious infectious disease since the outbreak emerged last month. Wuhan, by the way, is an inland city west of Shanghai, about 570 miles north of Hong Kong.

The serious response level indicates a moderate impact on Hong Kong’s population of about 7.5 million.

Hong Kong city leader Carrie Lam urged any travelers who develop respiratory symptoms to wear surgical masks, seek medical attention and let doctors know where they have been.

The sick patients in Wuhan are all being treated in isolation, and 121 others who had been in close contact with them were under observation, at last check.

Where did this come from?

Most of the cases have been traced to the South China Seafood City food market in the suburbs of Wuhan, where offerings reportedly include wild animals that can carry viruses dangerous to humans. The commission said the market has been disinfected.

The most common symptom has been fever, with shortness of breath and lung infections in a small number of cases, according to the World Health Organization.

There have been no clear indications of human-to-human transmission of the disease.

Besides SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, Hong Kong also was hit by bird flu in 1997 and swine flu in 2009.

The bottom line?

“It is highly unlikely that this will lead to a major 2003-like epidemic,” said Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, according to Time magazine. “Though we cannot be complacent.”

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