Authorities in Hong Kong have activated a recently created “serious response” threat level Saturday as a mysterious SARS-like respiratory illness begins to spread throughout central China, according to AP.

While just 44 people have been admitted to the hospital with the unidentified virus – eleven of them in serious condition, authorities in Wuhan, China have put 121 people under observation who have been in close contact with the infected. Five cases, meanwhile, have been reported in Shanghai – around 570 miles north of Hong Kong.

A Wuhan government official told SCMP that his wife, a nurse in the infectious disease unit at the Central Hospital, has been unable to go home for the past several days because her ward has been on “lockdown.”

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“My kids and I can still call her on her mobile,” he said, adding “[But] we are very worried for her, although she said all is fine.”

Five possible cases have been reported of a viral pneumonia that has also infected at least 44 people in Wuhan, an inland city west of Shanghai, about 900 kilometers (570 miles) north of Hong Kong.

The outbreak, which emerged last month, has revived memories of the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic that started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in the mainland, Hong Kong and elsewhere. –AP

The most common symptom of the new disease is fever, shortness of breath and lung infections. Method of transmission / infection is unknown. Investigations have ruled out bird flu and the common flu, as well as adenovirus infection and other common respiratory diseases. Further laboratory tests are ongoing according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.

Hong Kong’s ‘serious response’ level is the second highest in a newly-launched three-tier system unveiled Saturday, designed to respond to infectious diseases of unknown origin.

On Friday, the city’s health department activated a thermal imaging system at Hong Kong’s airport to check the body temperature of arriving passengers, while the staff at the West Kowloon high-speed rail station which connects Hong Kong and the mainland have been ordered to undergo temperature checks.

During a Friday visit to the train station, city leader Carrie Lam urged any travelers with respiratory systems to don surgical masks and seek immediate medical attention – telling doctors where they’ve been.

According to Oxford University visiting professor to the University of Hong Kong, Dr. Emily Chan Ying-yang, the sudden rise in cases in Wuhan is “not alarming,” but raises concerns that it may be a new strain.

“If it were Sars [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome], we are experienced in managing it,” she said. “But if it is a new strain, then we should pay attention.

The scariest thing with Sars is its fatality rate, and that young people died. We don’t know whether the serious cases in Wuhan are young or old people – that deserves attention.”

According to SCMP, Ying-yang says it’s important for authorities to be transparent with people, as large numbers of people will be traveling throughout China for the Lunar New Year in late January.

Professor Jiang Rongmeng, of Ditan Hospital in Beijing, one of China’s top centres for treating infectious diseases, said the rise in infections was probably a consequence of active detection and reporting of unexplained pneumonia cases.

“No apparent human-to-human transmission has been detected so far, otherwise there would have been a community outbreak with more infections,” he said. –SCMP

The outbreak was first reported among stallholders at the city’s Hunan Seafood Wholesale Market – which also sells live animals including birds and rabbits.

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