China Pneumonia Outbreak Spurs WHO Action as Mystery Lingers

Jason Gale

(Bloomberg) -- A mysterious lung infection in the central Chinese city of Wuhan is being monitored by the World Health Organization, which said it’s in active communication with its counterparts in China, where an investigation is underway to determine the cause.

The United Nations agency activated its incident-management system at the country, regional and global level and is standing ready to launch a broader response if it’s needed, the WHO’s regional office in Manila said in Twitter posts Saturday.

As of Friday, 44 people had been diagnosed with pneumonia, the cause of which is unknown, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission said in a statement. That’s up from 27 three days earlier. Eleven people are in serious condition. Some of the infected worked at a fresh seafood and produce market in the city.

“China has extensive capacity to respond to public health events and is responding proactively and rapidly to the current incident in Wuhan –- isolating patients, tracing close contacts, cleaning up the market, and searching for the cause and for additional cases,” the WHO said.

Pathogen studies have ruled out more common respiratory diseases, including influenza, avian flu and adenovirus, Wuhan health authorities said. All the patients are being treated under quarantine, according to the commission.

Governments in the region have started to take precautions to prevent any possible spread of the infections. Singapore’s Ministry of Health said temperature screening will be implemented at Changi Airport for all travelers arriving from Wuhan. In Hong Kong, officials have classified the response level as “serious” -- the second-highest scale of action in its three-tier system -- with public hospitals reporting eight patients, aged from four to 50, who have been to the Chinese city and show symptoms for pneumonia.

Market Closed

The Wuhan seafood market, which has since been closed, also sold birds, pheasants, and snakes, along with organs of rabbits and other wildlife, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy said Thursday, citing media reports.

That’s triggered concern about the potential jump of an unknown virus to humans -- reminiscent of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed almost 800 people about 17 years ago. The Wuhan Institute of Virology didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment on the infectious source.

It’s not known whether a SARS-like “coronavirus” has been identified, although there have been “numerous unsubstantiated reports mentioning a novel coronavirus that is SARS-like,” the International Society for Infectious Diseases’ ProMED-mail program said in an email Friday.

Several people were arrested for circulating fake news online about the viral spread of pneumonia, provincial authorities said, adding that rumors on social media alleging that there had been an outbreak of SARS are untrue, and no person-to-person transmission has been found so far.

Singapore has asked doctors to look out for suspected cases of pneumonia among people who have recently returned from Wuhan.

“Suspect cases with fever and acute respiratory illness or pneumonia and with travel history to Wuhan within 14 days before onset of symptoms will be isolated as a precautionary measure to prevent transmission,” the city-state’s Ministry of Health said in a Facebook post.

Hong Kong authorities said thermal-imaging systems will be deployed as part of increased fever surveillance at boundary check points. In Taiwan, the government has also implemented measures to prevent the spread of infections, its Centers for Disease Control said Tuesday.

(Adds measures taken by neighboring countries from the sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason Gale in Melbourne at j.gale@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shamim Adam at sadam2@bloomberg.net, Stanley James, Karthikeyan Sundaram

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