Originally created 03/18/03

Expers suspect virus is cause of Asian mystery illness



Health experts searching for the cause of a frightening outbreak of a deadly flu-like illness in Asia say the culprit is probably a virus, and they are encouraged that some victims appear to be getting better.

More than 150 people have fallen ill, mostly in Hong Kong and Vietnam, over the past three weeks. Experts suspect 300 people in China's Guangdong province had the same disease beginning in mid-November.

While experts are unsure precisely what is causing the outbreak, several say their biggest fear is that it is a new and lethal form of influenza.

So far, the disease has killed nine people - seven in Asia and two in North America. Its rapid spread, and the discovery of two clusters in Canada, caused a rare worldwide health alert to be issued on Saturday.

Health officials in China said Monday the disease that infected about 300 people and killed five in Guangdong province "seems amenable to treatment," although they stressed there is still no link to cases in other countries.

Investigators suspect a virus is involved, because victims do not seem to respond well to standard antibiotics, which kill only bacteria, and because their white blood counts drop. That typically happens with viral infections but not bacterial ones.

In Europe, two people were hospitalized in Paris with suspicious respiratory problems after returning from trips to Asia. Doctors were conducting tests Monday to see if the cases are linked to the outbreak.

One of the patients returned from Vietnam showing flu-like symptoms and the other person, who was in Hong Kong, appeared to be suffering from bronchitis, said Lucien Abenhaim, France's director-general of health.

Also, a woman in Slovenia who came from Vietnam 10 days ago was suspected of being infected. Doctors reported Monday that she was in stable condition and appeared to be recovering.

The woman checked into a hospital in the capital, Ljubljana, on Saturday. Tests ruled out other known forms of lung disease, and she was put in an isolation ward.

Asian airports were screening passengers for flu-like symptoms in the hope of stopping the spread of the disease. Some fearful passengers wore surgical masks or covered their faces to ward off infection.

Experts discounted the possibility that terrorism was the source and believed it almost certainly was a contagious infection that spreads most easily from victims to their doctors, nurses and families through coughing, sneezing and other contact with nasal fluids.

"Nothing about that pattern suggests bioterrorism," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Health officials say it may be several more days before they are able to identify the disease.

The illness is being called "severe acute respiratory syndrome," or SARS. The incubation period appears to be three to seven days. It often begins with a high fever and other flu-like symptoms, like headache and sore throat. Victims typically develop coughs, pneumonia, shortness of breath and other breathing difficulties. Death results from respiratory failure.

The World Health Organization has been aware of the outbreak for about three weeks but issued its global alert this weekend because of concern that the illness would spread to North America and Europe.

Officials said they are encouraged that some recent victims seem to be recovering, although they are unsure whether that is because of the many antibiotic and antiviral drugs they have been given or simply the natural course of the disease.

Dr. David Heymann, WHO's communicable diseases chief, said three or four patients had stabilized enough to be moved out of intensive care Sunday in Hanoi, Vietnam, although all still had breathing problems.

The World Health Organization estimates that perhaps 500 people in all have been sickened, if the earlier outbreak in China turns out to be part of the same disease, as they suspect it is.

Ninety percent of the most recent cases have been in health care workers.

The World Health Organization said late Monday that one of its doctors who was working in the hospital in Hanoi became sick on a flight to Bangkok and was hospitalized on arrival there March 11. Officials said there was no evidence of the illness in Thailand.

The CDC prepared cards that were being given to travelers arriving in America from Hanoi, Hong Kong or Guangdong province in China, warning they may have been exposed. It recommended they see a doctor if they get a fever accompanied by a cough or difficulty breathing over the next week.

No cases have been confirmed in the United States, but Gerberding said the CDC is checking out a few calls. The North American fatalities were a woman and her grown son who died in Toronto after visiting Hong Kong.

A 32-year-old physician from Singapore suspected of having the disease was taken off an airliner with his wife and mother-in-law during a stopover in Frankfurt, Germany, on Saturday after being in New York City for a medical conference. He was held in quarantine and doctors said Monday he was in stable condition.

His wife developed a low-grade fever and a sore throat Monday, said Dr. Hans-Reinhard Brodt, the head of the hospital's isolation ward at Frankfurt's University Clinic. Her mother was still running a high fever.

On the Net:

WHO: http://www.who.int/en/

CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars/