Some people believe pneumonia spreads quickly, but this past month has shown nothing on earth spreads as fast as an Internet rumour. Without downplaying its severity, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) has shown technology can be a super-carrier of misinformation that can turn a health scare into a crisis. The chances of getting Sars in Hong Kong appear to be about one in 9,900. The chance of dying are one in 400,000. But the chance of receiving an e-mail from a doctor whom you have never heard of? A certainty. The Prince of Wales Hospital, scene of one of the two main clusters of infection in Hong Kong, was also the source of at least part of the panic. Someone named Dr Jason Fat Wu sent round an e-mail saying we will all get the virus eventually. So why wear a mask? Because that way you can ensure you will get only a small dose of virus rather than a big one. And there we were thinking all viruses were small. The hospital has done nothing to stem the panic. Its online news section was last updated in November. The e-mail hoax about Gucci and Louis Vuitton face masks was one of Hong Kong's most successful pranks, and one of its most destructive. The story, blending fear of the virus with Hong Kong's fixation with brands and world-renowned entrepreneurial flair, hit newspapers across the world as editors looked from some light relief from the war. Suddenly, people who had never heard of Sars were talking about it. The garment industry reacted at lightning speed, filling the void with fake Hello Kitty and Louis Vuitton masks. Day after day, concerned citizens have sent one another genuine adverts for face masks, inadvertently fuelling both the panic and the fortunes of face mask makers. Online rumours blamed flying urine, mosquitoes and broken sewer pipes and helped trigger the rush on supermarkets. The huge volume of e-mail speculation on which buildings have been infected inspired four Hong Kongers to set up a Web site to chronicle the outbreaks. Sosick.org has become a crucial daily reference site for many people. The site lists buildings where infections have been reported, giving a Web link or scan to the original report. Some might complain the site is only fanning the flames but, with rumours of a cover-up, perhaps Sosick.org is a doing the right thing. 'I believe it would be for the good of the Hong Kong public to be informed of infected locations to help prevent further spreading,' said Bernard Chung, one of Sosick.org's organisers. 'When possible, we try to include more than one source for each case. When there is only one source, we make sure it is a reliable, mainstream source.' The next wave of e-mails offered snake oil solutions. One claimed sufferers could be cured with a dose of Yakult. Another suggested a hearty soup of green beans, sweet potato and sugar. Whenever Chinese people get sick, you can guarantee someone will suggest soup. Which brings up another Internet rumour - according to one poster on the gossip portal IceRed, Westerners are immune to Sars. I don't feel reassured. The government's response, at least online, has been surprisingly effective. The Department of Health and the Government Information Centre have kept their news sites updated and provided live Webcasts of announcements and press conferences. Both sites have proved very popular, according to government sources. The Department of Health Web site received just half a million page views in February. The figure leapt to 4.5 million last month. Last Tuesday, when the scare reached its peak in Hong Kong, it was 7.2 million. Last Tuesday saw the most dramatic online event in years, when a 14-year-old uploaded a fake Ming Pao Web page as an April Fools' prank. The site announced Hong Kong had been declared an infected port, the stock market had collapsed and Tung Chee-hwa had resigned, winning the boy a brief burst of popularity for his home page and a visit from the police. The government, for a change, handled the ensuing panic well. Within hours of the fake site going online, the government corralled local mobile phone firms into sending out several million SMS messages announcing that Hong Kong was (relatively) safe. It was the biggest instance of phone spam Hong Kong has seen, but most people forgave them. Let's just hope they don't make a habit of it. Inevitably, as the virus spreads overseas, the rumours are also going international. Chinese businesses in Toronto, Boston and no doubt many other cities with large Chinatowns have been the target of e-mail scaremongering as citizens blame the whole thing on skin colour. Maybe they have also been reading IceRed. E-mails in the Philippines complained that the country produces most of Asia's surgical masks but Filipinos are unable to buy them. In Singapore, banks became the target of e-mail and SMS health rumours, while one, DBS Bank, complained to the authorities that its competitors were purposefully spreading the rumours to win business. Outbreaks of SMS panic were also reported in Malaysia and Brunei. With war high on everyone's minds, conspiracy theorists blamed the outbreak on China's military. One newsgroup poster hinted the virus came from 'military installations involved in defensive nuclear-chemical-biological research'. Another wrote of the danger that Saddam Hussein might send undercover agents here to contract the disease and then return to pass it on to American troops. By this point, the rumours were getting quite silly. But when were they anything less? Now that the infections appear to have peaked, the flame will have to be kept alight by the occasional e-mail campaign complaining that Amoy Gardens residents are being housed too close to children. But even those complaints, in time, will die out. And we'll be back to surfing the Web in blissful innocence, having learned nothing from the experience and still believing every e-mail we receive. Neil Taylor is editor of Technology Post.