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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

World On Alert for Strain of Pneumonia

HONG KONG -- Global health authorities were on the alert Sunday for a severe type of pneumonia that has killed at least nine people, infected more than 100 and sparked a warning from the World Health Organization.

The spread of the disease has alarmed travelers. In Hong Kong's international airport Sunday, many people arriving from Taiwan, Singapore and elsewhere were wearing surgical masks.

A spokesman for the Geneva-based WHO said there were reports two people had died in Canada, taking the death toll to nine worldwide since the first outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, an atypical pneumonia whose cause is not yet known, was detected in China in February.

"This syndrome, SARS, is now a worldwide health threat," WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland said in a statement.

The illness, which starts with flu-like symptoms such as coughing, high fever and shortness of breath, can deteriorate rapidly into pneumonia.

It has infected dozens of people in Hong Kong and Vietnam, many of them hospital staff, and infection numbers have been rising steadily in Singapore and Taiwan.

U.S. health officials said Saturday they were probing reports that two people passing through Atlanta and New York had the illness. They gave no other details.

Six more infections were reported in Hong Kong and Singapore Sunday. WHO said it had also received reports of cases in Indonesia and Thailand but it gave no details.

In a rare emergency travel advisory, WHO said a Singapore doctor who treated some of the first pneumonia patients in the island republic had been taken ill and had to be removed from a plane in Frankfurt. He is now in an isolation unit in Germany and 155 other passengers were placed in quarantine.

In Hong Kong, the government has repeatedly played down fears of the virus spreading outside the medical community.

But the Apple Daily newspaper said two women who had likely contracted pneumonia while visiting China's Hangzhou city were rushed to the hospital Saturday after returning to Hong Kong. A family of six recently in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai also developed flu-like symptoms after returning to Hong Kong. One of them was now showing signs of pneumonia, it said.

The Hong Kong government has refused to comment on the report. It said there were no signs of any unusual rise in the number of pneumonia cases. There are about 300 cases a week.

Two more hospital staff were hospitalized Sunday, bringing to 49 the number of cases in Hong Kong, with 42 of them battling severe pneumonia, up from 37 on Saturday.

Health Minister Yeoh Eng-kiong said two patients who had been seriously ill were recovering and one of them would be discharged soon.

"We have effective treatment, but it's not 100 percent," Yeoh said, adding that some patients have responded well to a combination of anti-viral drugs and steroids.

An American businessman died Thursday in Hong Kong after being flown from Hanoi with respiratory problems.