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WHO Continues to Evaluate Deadly Pneumonia Virus - 2003-03-21

The World Health Organization says that China's recent outbreak of deadly pneumonia is likely related to the mystery virus in Hong Kong and Vietnam, which is now spreading to North America. The illness, called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is still on the rise despite intensive international efforts.

The World Health Organization announced in Beijing Friday that an international team of experts will help determine if the current global outbreak of a deadly pneumonia-type virus originated in Guangdong, southern China, earlier this year.

Dr. Henk Bekedam is the WHO representative in China. "The paramyxoviridae virus is very likely the cause of what has happening now," he said. "We still have to do a few laboratory testing to confirm that. It is now more likely that there is a link with Guangdong, I think that if you have followed this closely, that it is very obvious."

He says WHO will work closely with the Chinese government and scientists to determine the origin of the virus, in what is a major shift in Beijing's normally secretive policy in dealing with the outbreak.

The Guangdong virus sickened more than 300 people and killed at least five. However, Chinese officials still are skeptical about a possible link.

But Hong Kong health authorities revealed on Wednesday that a visiting Guangdong doctor was the probable origin of the Hong Kong outbreak. The mainland doctor also infected at least seven other Hong Kong hotel guests who took the virus to hospitals in Toronto, Singapore and Vietnam.

Some doctors in Hong Kong have criticized Beijing for not revealing more information about the pneumonia outbreak. But Hong Kong officials Friday said it was not as important to know where the virus originated as how to treat it.

Dr. Yeoh Eng-Kiong is Hong Kong's secretary of health. "For infection control purposes there are no boundaries," he said. "With such global travel it is just a matter of time.

Dr. Yeoh says the Hong Kong outbreak has shown no sign of slowing - the number of patients infected with pneumonia increased by another 30 on Friday to 197.

The World Health Organization says that there are at least another 100 suspected cases of atypical pneumonia outside of Hong Kong and China - including Australia, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. A total of 12 have died so far.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome starts with flu-like symptoms but quickly attacks a patient's lungs. Experts believe SARS may be caused by a virus similar to mumps and measles. They hope to confirm this soon.