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22 Mysterious Pneumonia Cases in U.S.

Officials "Cautiously Optimistic" About Test for SARS

WebMD Health News

March 21, 2003 -- The number of suspected cases of the mysterious pneumonia illness called SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in the U.S. has now grown to 22 across 12 states, and for the first time CDC officials say they believe the condition may have been spread in this country.

Worldwide, suspected SARS cases have increased to more than 350 in 14 countries, but World Health Organization (WHO) officials say they're "cautiously optimistic" about identifying the cause of the mystery pneumonia and may soon be able to develop a test to screen for it.

In a briefing today, CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, acknowledged that at least two suspected SARS cases in the U.S. appear be the result of persons who developed the illness after travel to the affected areas of Southeast Asia and then infected a healthcare worker in one case and a close family member in the other.

Suspected SARS cases have now been reported in California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Gerberding also said that two Americans included in the 22 suspected U.S. cases recently stayed on the same floor of the Hong Kong hotel that has been implicated as a potential source of the original infections. Earlier this week, officials said seven of the original SARS cases resided on the ninth floor of a Kowloon hotel in February and are thought to be among the original transmitters of the disease. Hong Kong health officials have since closed the affected section of the hotel.

Gerberding says that by tracing so many cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome back to the hotel, the outbreak is consistent with other naturally occurring infectious diseases by having a single source or person who is a particularly good transmitter. But she says the CDC is keeping an open mind about the possibility of terrorism under the current global climate, and authorities "are making sure not to leave any stone unturned in identifying the ultimate cause of the problem."

In another briefing in Geneva, WHO officials said at least two more laboratories have confirmed initial findings of a virus that might be the cause of the current SARS outbreak.

"We are now closer to reality that this Paramyxoviridae virus has caused this," says David Heymann, MD, executive director of the communicable diseases section of the WHO. But he says this represents a whole range of different viruses, from some that cause measles and mumps to others that cause common respiratory infections and sometimes may not even cause symptoms.

"Just because we found it circulating in some people does not mean that it is not circulating in others. A whole series of studies has to be done to find out if this is the cause," says Heymann.

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