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Fears of Respiratory Syndrome Cut Into Asia Trips, Tour Operators Say

Times Staff Writers

The rapid spread of a pneumonia-like illness has prompted Californians to cancel vacation and business trips to Asia and is even causing some to avoid ethnic enclaves such as Orange County’s Little Saigon out of fear that recent travelers have brought back the disease.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, has killed dozens in China, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Added to fears of terrorism, the illness has persuaded all but the most motivated travelers to stay home, travel agents said.

At 5 Oceans Tours in Westminster, for example, customers are canceling flights scheduled for May and June, and weekly bookings for Asia have dropped from 100 to five, manager Cam Tsai said. “It’s kind of serious when people in Hong Kong are wearing masks,” Tsai said. “I wouldn’t go, either.”

One family of 26 canceled plans for an eight-day tour of China beginning May 31.

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Relatives from throughout the United States had bought tickets through 5 Oceans for the annual reunion that would have included visits to the Great Wall and Shanghai.

“We were so excited to go,” said Kha Trinh, 55, of Orlando, Fla., who planned the annual family vacation six months ago. “But how can we have fun if we can’t travel in comfort, we’re worried and we have to wear masks?”

Some people figure they have little choice. George Chen, 54, of Arcadia travels every month to Guangzhou, China, where he owns a shoe company. Last week, his sister gave him a surgical mask for his travels, and he has considered canceling or delaying his next trip.

“Of course I’m worried,” he said. “Everybody is worried. But because I have a business there, I have to go.”

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Similar fears are seen in San Francisco’s large Chinese American community. Kevin Goo, a travel agent at China Travel Service USA Inc., said that about 20% of the firm’s clients have canceled tours in China.

The World Health Organization said that through Monday, more than 1,600 cases of SARS have been reported worldwide, mostly in Asia. And with the deaths of two more people in Hong Kong on Monday, the global death toll has reached 61, according to the Reuters news agency.

Canadian health officials reported 31 new cases, bringing that country’s tally to 129, one of the largest outside Asia, Reuters reported.

At least 69 cases are under investigation in the United States, including seven in Los Angeles County and one in Riverside County; San Francisco reported its first suspected case Monday. No one has died from the illness in this country.

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The symptoms of SARS are fatigue, a temperature of more than 100.5 degrees, coughing and difficulty breathing. The illness is suspected only in people who have traveled in the past 10 days to a country where SARS has been reported or have been in close contact with someone who has.

“I’ve been telling people it’s very common to come back from Asia with upper respiratory problems,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County. “One should not assume just because you have flu-like symptoms you have SARS.”

The Centers for Disease Control is advising people not to travel to China, Hanoi, Singapore or Hong Kong.

CDC officials are boarding flights and ships arriving from those areas to check passenger health.

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The few passengers with SARS symptoms have been isolated in hospitals until the condition can be ruled out, said Karen Hunter, a CDC spokeswoman.

Passengers entering the United States from affected countries are given a brochure telling them to monitor their health for at least a week. The information is in English, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese. The brochure advises travelers who have symptoms to consult a doctor.

Southern California public health officials said they have not been making outreach efforts on SARS to Asian communities. Instead they are warning hospitals and physicians to watch for the illness.

Merchants and residents of Asian enclaves in Southern California say they see signs that people are afraid of catching the illness from returning travelers.

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In Monterey Park, a Los Angeles County city with a large Chinese American population, many people want to buy surgical masks. Kenny Ha, manager of a Sav-On drugstore, said one or two customers a day walk in wearing the masks and that he has sold out the store’s stock of 100 in two weeks.

Even the manager of a Monterey Park bookstore, Robert Young, is thinking of stocking surgical masks because the demand is so great. Business has been down a bit because people fear going out, he said.

“I should be the one who’s most afraid,” he said. “Lots of people come in here, and I don’t know where they’re from.”

In Little Saigon, no cases of SARS have been reported. But fear of the disease is keeping some people away from the crowded shopping areas.

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On most Mondays, for example, Trang Ngo would meet a friend at the Asian Garden Mall to talk, walk their babies and eat.

The routine was put on hold when they learned about the virus that was spreading all over Asia.

“We’re just kind of paranoid because we don’t know what to expect,” said Ngo. “There are a lot of people who come out here and who knows what they might bring back. Especially for the kids, we stopped going. It’s scary.”

Ngo and her friends are not alone. “I’m staying away until there’s a cure or someone tells us what’s going on with this unknown illness,” said Lan Nguyen, 28, of Laguna Hills. “I’m too scared.”

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Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb and Errin Haines contributed to this report.


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