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Explained: A mystery disease from China has hit Hong Kong. What is it?

As of January 3, over 44 cases have been reported. Out of these 11 were in serious condition and the remaining 33 are believed to be in a stable condition.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | January 4, 2020 5:55:31 pm
Explained: A mystery disease from China has hit Hong Kong. What is it? Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, second from right, accompanied by Secretary for Food and Health, Prof. Sophia Chan, right, reviews the health surveillance measures by officers of the Port Health Division at West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong Government Information Service via AP)

On Saturday (January 4), Hong Kong’s hospital authorities activated the “serious response” level in public hospitals as part of its newly launched Preparedness and Response Plan for Novel Infectious Disease of Public Significance.

The response plan was launched along with the activation of the response level from “alert” to “serious” amid fears that a mystery infectious disease was brought to Hong Kong by visitors to the city of Wuhan in mainland China.

A press release issued by Hong Kong’s Department of Health has said that a number of viral pneumonia cases with unknown causes have been identified since last December, the symptoms of which include fever and shortness of breath.

As of January 3, over 44 cases have been reported. Out of these 11 were in serious condition and the remaining 33 are believed to be in a stable condition.

What is this mystery illness?

Chinese health authorities have been investigating the cause of several cases of viral pneumonia that were reported in Wuhan. There was some speculation initially that the infection may be linked to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

A Reuters report said that in 2003, Chinese officials had covered up the SARS outbreak for weeks, before the rising death toll and increasingly loud whispers forced the government to reveal the outbreak of the epidemic.

But according to a press release issued by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission, the pneumonia cases reported by some medical institutions were linked to Wuhan’s South China seafood market.

The market has been shut since Wednesday. As of December 31, some 27 cases of the illness were reported; by January 3, the number had risen to 44.

As of now, epidemiological investigations have revealed that some patients who have contracted the mystery infection are business operators at the seafood market.

According to the Department of Health, no “obvious” human to human transmission has been observed, and no healthcare worker has been affected yet.

The causative pathogen and potential cause of the infection are still under investigation. Influenza viruses, avian influenza viruses, and some other common respiratory diseases such as adenovirus have been ruled out.

Explained: A mystery disease from China has hit Hong Kong. What is it? A health surveillance officer with temperature scanner waits for passengers at the Hong Kong International airport in Hong Kong, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. (AP Photo: Andy Wong)

What is the ‘serious response’ level?

In the plan launched Saturday, the government has adopted a three-tier response level: Alert, Serious and Emergency. Hong Kong has borne the brunt of severe new infections in recent years: avian influenza in 1997, SARS in 2003, and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

As part of the serious response level, more stringent infection control measures are enforced in public hospitals. Visitors are not allowed in isolated wards. For general acute wards, the visiting hours are not more than two hours per day, and not more than two visitors per visit.

This plan is activated when the risk of health impact caused by the novel infection is moderate. It reflects a situation of a limited spread of the disease in the local population.

As of January 3, Hong Kong’s Health Department had received reports of five cases under the enhanced surveillance system.

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