Chinese public health officials are struggling to identify a mysterious strain of pneumonia that has infected dozens of people and put the rest of Asia on alert for outbreaks.

The authorities in Wuhan, central China, said 44 people had been admitted to hospital with the unidentified virus, up from the 27 reported on Tuesday. Eleven of them were in a serious condition, while a further 121 people who had been in close contact with the infected patients had been placed under medical observation. No deaths have been reported.

Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said that the origin of the viral pneumonia outbreak remained unknown. It said investigations had so far ruled out common flu, avian flu, adenovirus infection and other common respiratory diseases. Further laboratory tests and investigations were under way.

The commission added that there was no proof of human-to-human transmission, nor had any medical staff contracted the illness.

Symptoms of the new disease include high fever, difficulty breathing, and lung lesions. Currently, there are 59 known cases of this pneumonia-like illness. And while Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has been ruled out as a cause, public health officials are concerned about another potential pandemic.

The outbreak came to light in late December and prompted fears in China of a possible resurgence of SARS, an acute viral respiratory illness first reported in the country in 2002 that caused a pandemic that ripped through Asia.

SARS spread to 37 countries worldwide, infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 from November 2002 to July 2003. The illness is brought on by a coronavirus, and symptoms include fever, cough, severe headache, dizziness and other flu-like complaints.

Amid growing disquiet, Wuhan authorities said on Sunday they had excluded the possibility of SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and bird flu.

Unfortunately, the illness broke out in conjunction with one of China’s biggest travel holidays.

The illness appeared just weeks before the Spring Festival, the country’s biggest holiday, when tens of millions of people travel. The authorities urged the public to be on alert for pneumonia-like symptoms like fever, body aches and breathing difficulties.

Workers wearing hazmat suits disinfected and shut down the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, which also sold poultry, pheasants and wild animal meats, after the city health department said it traced many of the cases to it. Viruses that caused SARS and the H7N9 strain of bird flu in humans were first detected in markets that sold animals and experts have said contact with infected animals was the likeliest source of transmission.

As a result of these reports, Hong Kong authorities activated a newly created “serious response” level to address the increased public health concerns.

The serious response level indicates a moderate impact on Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million people. It is the second highest in a three-tier system that is part of a new government plan launched Saturday to respond to infectious diseases of unknown cause.

The city’s health department added an additional thermal imaging system at Hong Kong’s airport on Friday to check the body temperature of arriving passengers. More staff have been assigned for temperature checks at the West Kowloon high-speed rail station that connects Hong Kong to the mainland.

Authorities in Taiwan have issued recommendations for travelers to the impacted region.

The upcoming holiday has prompted concerns in Taiwan, where vice premier Chen Chi-mai has urged the island’s health and welfare ministry to strengthen quarantine controls at airports and “plan properly.”

On Monday, Taiwan’s center for disease control also advised residents planning to travel to or near Wuhan to wear masks and avoid contact with wild animals.

Research so far suggests seafood or game animals are the sources of the infecting pathogen.

“The epidemiological association of these unexplained pneumonia cases with the wet market selling not just seafood, but also some game-food animals strongly suggests that this is a novel microbe jumping from animal to human,” says Yuen Kwok Yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.

Given China’s advances in epidemiology, infection control, and laboratory diagnostic capabilities since the SARS outbreak in Asia in 2003, Yuen says “It is highly unlikely that this outbreak will lead to a major [SARS-like] epidemic, though we cannot be complacent!”

Hopefully, Yuen’s optimistic projection is accurate. It would be nice not to have to cover significant epidemics in 2020.


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