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WHO Trying to Track Down Cause of Unknown Respiratory Illness - 2003-03-18

The World Health Organization said it still does not know the cause of a mysterious respiratory illness that is being blamed for the deaths of nine people. The disease, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, began in Asia and has now spread to other regions of the world.

Officials at the World Health Organization say 11 laboratories in nine countries are trying to track down the cause of this disease, which first appeared in China in November.

The head of WHO's communicable diseases program, David Heymann, said the agency hopes that information gathered from China over the last four months will provide some answers as to how the disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, can be treated.

But, as of now, he said it is not certain that the disease identified in China is the same as that found in other countries. Dr. Heymann said the medical community is alarmed because it does not know what is causing the illness.

"We are very concerned initially that this could be an influenza virus, and this is still being looked at in the 11 laboratories to make sure it is not, because the scientific community tells us that there will be another major world epidemic of influenza one day. This is inevitable according to the scientific community. We have to be on guard," Dr. Heymann said.

About 20 million people died in the influenza pandemic of 1918, more than were killed in World War I. Dr. Heymann emphasizes there is no evidence that anything as serious as this is occurring now. In fact, he says the disease is not spreading as rapidly as a normal influenza, and only people who have been in close contact with actual patients appear to be at risk.

The first cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome were reported in China and then Vietnam, but it now has spread to Canada and several European countries. It is estimated that, worldwide, about 400 people have contracted the disease.

Although Dr. Heymann acknowledges the illness is very serious, he also says it is actually quite hard to catch. "There should not be panic. This is a disease which has to have, it seems must require, very close contact with patients. It is mainly hospital workers who have been infected in the first wave of infections. Now we are seeing that some of their family members are being infected. It is not contagious at the level of many other infectious diseases, including influenza," he said.

The World Health Organization urges people to seek medical attention if they show any symptoms of the illness. These include coughing, high fever and shortness of breath.