GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization warned on Saturday of a worldwide health threat as a mystery killer pneumonia spread from east Asia to other parts of the globe.
Releasing a rare "emergency travel advisory," the United Nations health agency said an ill passenger had been taken to an isolation unit in Frankfurt, Germany, on Saturday after being removed from a plane en route from New York to Singapore.
Some 155 other passengers who had been due to change planes or stay in Frankfurt were placed in quarantine there, while the remaining 85 passengers and 20 crew on the Singapore Airlines flight continued their journey, German officials said.
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 (SARS), 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.
Among the dead is an American businessman taken ill in Hanoi after visiting Shanghai. He died on Thursday in Hong Kong where 47 cases have been reported.
Some 40 people were being treated in Hanoi, where one nurse died on Saturday, according to local health officials. Cases have also been reported in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the passenger taken from the plane in Frankfurt was a Singapore doctor who had visited New York after treating some of the first suspected SARS patients in Singapore.
"If the suspicion (of pneumonia) is confirmed, the transit passengers will have to remain under observation in quarantine for seven days in order to diagnose any possible infection and prevent the disease spreading," the Social Affairs Ministry in the state of Hesse, which includes Frankfurt, said in a statement.
HIGH ATTACK RATE
WHO issued its first global alert for 10 years earlier this week because of the speed at which the disease travels and because patients are not responding to the usual treatments for pneumonia, Thompson said.
"As reports of cases are confirmed, you will see that there is a very high attack rate. When they get sick, they get very sick," he said.
"We have been doing tests for weeks now in the world's best laboratories and we still do not know whether it is a virus or bacteria," the spokesman added.
Most of the latest cases have been among hospital workers.
The first outbreak was reported in February in China's southern Guangdong province, where 305 people were infected and five people died.
Singapore and Taiwan have issued travel warnings after some cases followed trips to Hong Kong or mainland China.
It was after a visit to Hong Kong, where anxious locals have been sweeping surgical masks off pharmacy shelves, that a Canadian woman died of severe pneumonia on March 5. Her son, who did not travel with her, also fell sick and died.
In its alert, WHO said travelers and airline crews needed to be aware of the first symptoms, which include high temperature and difficulty in breathing.
It was also likely that anybody taken ill would have been in contact with a person diagnosed with the disease or who had traveled to an area where cases had been reported, the alert said.
But WHO said it was not calling for restrictions in travel to any area. (--Additional reporting by Michael Steen in Frankfurt)