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SARS re-emergence fear in HK

Hong Kong residents had begun abandoning their masks.

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HONG KONG, China -- Eleven patients are being tested for suspected SARS in Hong Kong, about a month after the WHO declared the area free from the virus, reports say.

The patients, residents at a mental health institute, began suffering from "respiratory problems such as fever and coughs," a government spokeswoman was quoted by Reuters as saying.

"They're now under observation and in stable condition," she added. "We're testing them if they have SARS."

The development came just about one month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Hong Kong free of the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus.

The spread of the virus, infecting 1,755 people and killing 296 in Hong Kong, had made the territory a virtual no-go zone since it first hit the area four months ago. It also severely damaged the economy.

No cure or vaccine for SARS is known, forcing authorities to rely on centuries-old measures of isolation, quarantine and travel restrictions to curb the disease.

Since appearing in southern China last November, SARS has infected about 8,400 people and killed about 800 in nearly 30 countries and territories across the world, including Taiwan, China, Canada and Singapore.

At the height of the epidemic, many Hong Kong residents wore masks on the streets and others simply stayed at home, hitting the retail and restaurant trade hard.

Nearly 1,300 people were confined to their homes during the outbreak as authorities fought to stop the disease's spread.

Tourists also stopped visiting the territory, slashing a vital source of income and pushing unemployment to a record 8.3 percent.

Analysts say the epidemic will cost the city billions of dollars in lost business, leaving it teetering on the brink of its third recession in six years.

Even before SARS broke out, Hong Kong was suffering from rising unemployment, chronic deflation and an identity crisis.

The government had embarked on a massive cleanup campaign amid fears the virus could return. (Full story)

Hotel occupancy had been climbing steadily and airlines were slowly beginning to fill seats once again.

All airports, ports and border points in Hong Kong carried out temperature checks of passengers, with visitors also required to complete a health declaration.

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