updated 10/17/2003 5:51:28 PM ET 2003-10-17T21:51:28

Hong Kong health officials were caught off guard by the SARS crisis, and their response was hampered by poor planning and sloppy communications, a report said Thursday.

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The report by an outside panel of experts praised the efforts of all those who fought the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which infected 1,755 people in Hong Kong and killed 299, but it said their work was complicated by a number of problems that could have been prevented.

Hong Kong was placed at a disadvantage by a lack of information from China’s neighboring Guangdong province, where the disease originated late last year, the experts said.

In addition, there was little understood about the new disease and no ways to firmly diagnose it, they said.

The report directed no blame at individual officials.

“Overall the epidemic in Hong Kong was handled well, although there were clearly significant shortcomings of system performance during the early days of the epidemic when little was known about the disease or its cause,” the report said.

The 172-page report said there was an initial failure of communication between Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority, its Health Department and university health experts.

The Health Department only became aware of the first major outbreak through news media reports, they said.

No contingency plan was in place for such a disease, and there were weaknesses in infection control as well as problems with training and design in hospitals, it said.

For weeks, many frightened Hong Kong people stayed home and hundreds of thousands wore surgical masks on the streets and in their workplaces to avoid infection.

Hong Kong became the second hardest-hit place in the world, after mainland China, but the rate of infection here was much higher.

Hong Kong had a 17.1 percent fatality rate from SARS, the experts said, compared with 6.6 percent in mainland China and 27.1 percent in Taiwan.

The World Health Organization warned people on April 2 to avoid traveling to Hong Kong — dealing a harsh blow to the territory’s airlines, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. The advisory was lifted on May 23 and economic activity began picking up again.

SARS was brought to Hong Kong in late February by a sick medical professor from mainland China.

He infected other people who stayed at the same time he did in a Hong Kong hotel, the Metropole, and they spread the disease further into Hong Kong as well as to Vietnam, Singapore and Canada.

The report noted that other places hit hard by SARS also were not as well prepared as they should have been.

To better prepare for future disease outbreaks, the experts made a number of recommendations, including devising a better health care structure with more clearly defined roles.

SARS infected more than 8,400 people globally and killed more than 900, mostly in Asia.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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