HK's worst SARS outbreak spread through plumbing
The Star - Saturday, 19 April 2003

HONG KONG: The biggest SARS outbreak in Hong Kong spread through the plumbing in an apartment complex after visits from a man sick with the disease, health officials say.

Water droplets contaminated with the SARS virus may have been sucked out of bathroom drains into apartments by ventilation fans, said Hong Kong's health secretary, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong.

The disease - severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, apparently also was spread through person-to-person contact and possibly by rats and cockroaches, Yeoh said on Thursday.

The outbreak at the Amoy Gardens apartment complex was traced to a mainland Chinese man visiting his brother in March. The man's symptoms included diarrhoea and his use of the bathroom helped set in motion a chain of events that eventually sickened 324 people from the apartments, an official report found.

Many who came down with SARS in the Block E building of the apartments also got diarrhoea, spreading the disease further through faulty seals between sewage and water drains, Yeoh said.

The outbreak at Amoy Gardens has been the most alarming yet in the former British colony, which has reported 65 SARS deaths.

Worldwide, SARS has infected more than 3,300 people and at least 166 people have died, most in Asia.

Block E building was temporarily evacuated, and Yeoh said the outbreak has now been contained.

"We were scared at first, but after the isolation, we haven't seen any outbreak like what we had before," said one resident, Anna Yuen, 45, who lives in Block E with her husband and three children.

The World Health Organisation announced on Wednesday that scientists have confirmed the identity of the SARS virus, a key step toward finding drugs to combat the disease.

The disease, which emerged in southern China in November, has been spread internationally by travellers.

In releasing the report on Amoy Gardens, Hong Kong health officials said there was no evidence SARS has been an airborne disease. But they discussed a "chimney effect" in which contaminated water droplets from a leak in Block E had risen through an air shaft and into some apartments.

Yeoh said if SARS had spread through the air, "We're not talking about 300 cases. It would be thousands, tens of thousands." - AP