02/01/2005, 00.00
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HK seeks facts about deadly outbreak

Hong Kong health authorities are urgently seeking information from the mainland about an outbreak of a deadly disease that infected more than 250 people last month and has killed 16 in six weeks.

Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok said the outbreak of bacterial meningitis "seems to be serious because of the number of fatalities".

The Ministry of Health yesterday issued an emergency notice calling on the whole country to step up preventive measures against the disease.

It said the 258 cases last month were 43 more than the number recorded in December and 94 more than occurred in the same month last year.

Cases have been found everywhere except Tibet and the southern provinces of Fujian and Hainan.

Dr Chow said Hong Kong was urgently seeking information from hospital, health and local authorities in the affected provinces.

"We need to get information first before we can prepare any outbreak plan," he said.

"We want to know whether this has been endemic for some time and whether this is a new strain, because a special vaccination is available for meningococcal infection," he said.

Despite pledges to improve cross-border communication on diseases after the 2003 Sars epidemic, Hong Kong was not informed about the outbreak until it took the initiative to contact Beijing.

A government spokesman said the disease "intelligence exchange programme" did not include provinces other than Guangdong, where Sars first appeared.

"Once we heard about the outbreak, we immediately contacted Beijing to learn more about the situation," the spokesman said, without stating when this was done.

Guangdong media have reported one case there. Provincial authorities said it was an isolated one and nothing out of the ordinary.

Hong Kong's Port Health Office is alerting the travel industry and giving its members relevant health advice. But there are no plans to install more temperature scanners at the land border checkpoints and airport or step up checks on visitors from affected areas.

In the latest case, six students from Tangyang Township Middle School in the Jiangsu city of Dongtai were confirmed to have the disease yesterday. A seventh was suspected to have it. None was in critical condition.

Neighbouring Anhui province is the hot spot of the outbreak, with 61 cases in 11 cities. Five people have died there and three in Jiangsu since December 20. More than three-quarters of the patients were students aged 13 to 18.

A source with the national Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said the centre had sent meningitis experts to conduct investigations in Guangdong and Anhui.

The bacterial infection is characterised by sudden onset of fever, intense headache, nausea and vomiting, stiff neck and shock, and death in severe cases. Most people affected by the outbreak in eastern China have been struck down by the C strain, which is generally more lethal than strains A or B.

Meningococcal infections are notifiable in Hong Kong, where there were four cases last year.

A World Health Organisation disease expert said the agency was seeking details of the outbreak.

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