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Mysterious Pneumonia Cases Still Growing

New Evidence Shows Virus Is Likely Cause of SARS Outbreak

WebMD Health News

March 20, 2003 -- The number of people thought to have the mysterious pneumonia illness called SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has now grown to more than 300 in at least 11 countries, including the U.S. New estimates released today by the CDC and World Health Organization put the number of suspected SARS cases at 306 and deaths attributed to the illness at 10.

Investigators say they are also making major progress in identifying the cause of pneumonia or the respiratory illness seen in SARS. Yet, so far, whatever the cause of the pneumonia, symptoms are still treated with supportive means and antibiotics.

Earlier this week, laboratories in Germany and Hong Kong announced they had identified a strain of a virus from the paramyxoviridae family in nasal swabs taken from SARS patients. Paramyxoviruses are known to cause measles, mumps, canine distemper, and other diseases in humans and animals.

Now, officials in Germany say they've also found this type of virus in the blood of one of the SARS patients, the mother-in-law of a doctor from Singapore who treated patients with symptoms of pneumonia, the original victims of SARS.

Finding the virus in the blood of an individual provides strong evidence that the virus might be the cause of the illness, but officials stress that these are still only preliminary findings. Researchers believe that viral strain found in SARS patients might be a new form of paramyxovirus because previous tests have ruled out other known types of the virus.

Once a cause of the mysterious pneumonia is found, officials say they can develop a diagnostic test to help doctors and health officials screen suspected cases and facilitate treatment for those with respiratory symptoms from other causes of pneumonia.

Until the cause of the mysterious illness or pneumonia is identified, the WHO broadly defines a case of severe acute respiratory syndrome as someone with:

  • A fever of greater than 100.4 degrees;
  • One or more of the following respiratory symptoms: cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, or an X-ray finding of pneumonia;
  • 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.

Most of the SARS cases are concentrated in Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Singapore, but other suspected cases have been reported in southern China, Taiwan, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

The CDC says it is currently investigating 13 reports of potential SARS cases in California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

CDC Director Julie Gerberding says none of these cases have been confirmed, and all involve people who recently traveled to affected areas. At this time there is no evidence of SARS being transmitted locally from person to person in the U.S.

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