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Mysterious Killer Pneumonia Spreads

Cases of Respiratory Illness Multiply Across Southeast Asia, Canada

WebMD Health News

March 17, 2003 -- Health officials across the globe are racing to unravel the mystery behind a dangerous and potentially deadly pneumonia-like illness that has spread quickly throughout Southeast Asia and now has taken root in North America.

So far, the World Health Organization (WHO), which has issued a rare global alert, says 167 cases, including four deaths, of the unknown disease identified only as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) have been documented, and new clusters have been reported in Canada.

Although no cases have been confirmed in the U.S., CDC officials have issued a travel health alert and warned health care providers to be on the lookout for suspicious illnesses among travelers who have recently returned from Southeast Asia. Officials say that two people thought to have the condition recently traveled to New York City and Atlanta, but there is no immediate cause for concern in this country.

The CDC health alert advises travelers to Southeast Asia that if they become ill with a fever and respiratory symptoms, such as cough or difficulty breathing, within seven days of travel to affected areas, they should immediately contact their doctor. A related travel advisory also states that U.S. citizens planning nonessential travel to the regions affected by the outbreak may wish to postpone their trips until further notice.

"To date, we have not been able to identify an agent responsible for the outbreak," says Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, in a briefing held in conjunction with the CDC today. "We are taking it very seriously and taking all prudent steps to ensure the maximum safety and health of all Americans."

Several international laboratories are currently analyzing samples in an attempt to determine the cause of the illness, but they do not know yet whether the disease is caused by a bacteria or virus. Officials say at this time there is no evidence to suggest that this illness might have unnatural causes or is an example of bioterrorism.

CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, says the pattern of transmission of the disease is what would normally be expected from a contagious respiratory or flu-like illness, but the CDC is keeping an open mind about the issue.

Investigators say the disease seems to spread only through close contact with an infected individual, such as having lived with, cared for, or having had direct contact with respiratory secretions and body fluids with a person that has it.

The WHO defines a case of the mysterious illness as someone with:

  • A fever of greater than 100.4 degrees;
  • One or more of following respiratory symptoms: cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing;
  • And either close contact with a known SARS case or a history of travel to one of the affected areas within the last 10 days before the emergence of symptoms.

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