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World: Pneumonia-Like Outbreak Has Health Officials Concerned

An unusual pneumonia-like infection has sickened 160 or more people in recent weeks in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Canada. As many as four of those infected have died. Anxiety over the unexplained outbreak has seen thousands of people changing travel plans and stocking up on medical supplies. The World Health Organization, which is tracking and investigating the outbreak, tells RFE/RL that, although the disease is worrisome, the true scope of its threat has yet to be determined.

Prague, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Like the rats in Albert Camus' "The Plague," an unidentified illness attracted little attention early this month when it surfaced in Vietnam and Hong Kong.

A U.S. businessman fell ill in Vietnam showing symptoms of what public health doctors now are calling SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. He was evacuated to Hong Kong, where he died. Subsequently, a nurse who had attended him in Hanoi developed similar symptoms, and also died. More hospital workers and other people in Hong Kong went on to develop the same kind of pneumonia-like illness.

Reports of the illness continued to flow in to the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) from Canada, Vietnam, and Hong Kong and, later, New York and Frankfurt. News reports today say as many as four people may have died from SARS. But in a telephone interview with RFE/RL today, Iain Simpson of the WHO's communicable disease section said that nobody can be sure how many cases there are.

"As far as we know at this point, there are 167 cases. Although I have to say that that number fluctuates quite a lot because people get reported as suspected cases and then it turns out that, in fact, this is not what they have," Simpson said.

Simpson said the WHO had been tracking since last November a similar outbreak in China of a severe respiratory disease -- that, like SARS, was neither flu nor ordinary pneumonia. "There was an outbreak of something called atypical pneumonia -- which is a similar syndrome, if you like -- which was in southern China between the end of November and early February. In that outbreak some 300 people were infected and five died. The current death count of nine reported by many news agencies is a combination of the southern China outbreak and the Hong Kong outbreak. And we're now trying to investigate with the Chinese government whether there is a link between that outbreak and the one that we are looking at now," he said.

It has yet to be established whether the epidemic in China's Guangdong Province is linked to the Vietnam-Hong Kong cases. But the WHO last week was moved to issue what it called a "global alert" and then an "emergency travel advisory" in response to the situation.

Influenza is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs, usually caused by a virus but sometimes by bacteria. What health officials at the WHO now are calling "atypical pneumonia" also appears to be an infection of the lungs but is marked by a dry, hacking cough -- unlike pneumonia's wet, gurgling cough. High fever, difficulty breathing, aching muscles, and exhaustion may be associated with any one of these.

After analyzing the known SARS cases, WHO officials have concluded that the outbreak -- although exceedingly dangerous -- probably is not highly contagious. Those who have contracted it have for the most part been people, such as doctors and nurses or relatives, who have been in very close contact with people with the disease.

"It's not clear how contagious this infection is. What is clear is that this is not like the flu, where you can just pick it up by being in a room with someone or by being on a bus with someone. To catch this infection, it's quite clear that you have to have close contact with someone who is infected and that, even then, you won't necessarily become sick yourself," Simpson said, adding, "This is nowhere near as infectious as a cold."

Simpson said the WHO can suggest few reasonable precautions to take. He said medical authorities should be alert for the SARS symptoms and take precautions for themselves by isolating suspected patients.