A highly contagious flu-like virus, which quickly turns into pneumonia, started in Asia and has spread rapidly through hospitals in Hong Kong and Hanoi. It’s so severe that the World Health Organization sent an expert to Hong Kong to try to identify the virus, and France and Japan have sent medical experts to Vietnam. The source of the outbreak is linked to the death of an 48-year-old American doctor who arrived in Hanoi from Shanghai suffering from severe respiratory problems. When his condition got worse, he was transferred to a hospital in Hong Kong, where he later died. Now there’s evidence that the mystery virus has spread to Canada, meaning it’s headed our way. A staff member of the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong sent us an update. He says, “What you see and read on CNN, BBC, etc. is 24 hours out of date.”

So far, the largest number of cases are in the Hanoi and Hong Kong hospitals. Little is known about the virus other than that it?s extremely contagious and is transmitted through coughing and sneezing. Hong Kong Health Minister Yeoh Eng-kiong says, “We have effective treatment, but it’s not 100%.? Singapore and Taiwan have advised citizens not to travel to Hanoi or Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific airlines has ordered their staff not to check in passengers who show symptoms of illness.

The disease has now spread to Canada, meaning it will soon show up here. U.S. health officials are investigating reports that two people passing through Atlanta and New York have the illness. WHO has received reports of cases in Indonesia and Thailand. In southern China, 305 people contracted severe pneumonia in February and five of them died, but WHO isn’t sure if this is where the disease started. “This syndrome?is now a worldwide health threat,” says WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Meanwhile, a bird flu virus that’s affecting chickens in the Netherlands has caused eye infections in 30 farm workers. The infections are mild, but doctors are concerned that the bird virus could mix with the human flu virus and cause a harsh new form of flu. Workers with flu symptoms have been banned from farms. “We absolutely do not want to see human flu evolve from the avian virus,” says researcher Albert Osterhaus. “If a human virus emerged with surface proteins from the avian virus, there would be no antibodies to it in the population?In theory this could create a pandemic flu virus.” Flu pandemics have killed millions of people in the last century.

In No Such Thing as Doomsday, Philip Hoag writes, “Historical research suggests that heightened sunspot cycles directly correlate with periods of extreme weather, war, epidemics and social disorder.” We’re in such a sunspot cycle right now. Hear Hoag tell how to stay safe from spread of disease, whether natural or terrorist-induced, on Dreamland.

Find out what it’s like to work in a hospital where your co-workers are being struck down with this mysterious flu.

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