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Scientists Create Possible Test to Diagnose Mysterious Asian Illness - 2003-03-22

The World Health Organization says scientists have taken a step that might help curtail the mysterious Asian illness that has killed 10 people and sickened 359 in 15 nations as of Friday. The researchers have created what might be the first test to diagnose the pneumonia-like ailment.

A laboratory in a WHO global network investigating the new ailment has created a method that might determine who is infected and who is not.

The disease, called SARS, is hard to distinguish from many others because they share similar symptoms, including fever, cough, and breathing difficulties. So a diagnostic test would let doctors isolate infected SARS patients, helping curtail transmission.

Researchers found that antibodies in blood from recovering SARS patients stopped test tube growth of a virus extracted from the noses of other patients.

The WHO calls the finding the first important step towards the creation of a diagnostic test, but notes that much more work must be done to develop it.

The nasal virus used in the test is the leading suspect in the hunt for the organism that causes SARS. But the connection is not definitive. The director of the U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Julie Gerberding, said the best proof of a link would come if the virus were found in internal tissues of several patients, especially the lungs. "I think we all remain confident that we eventually will be able to identify this [germ], but it is too preliminary to ascribe the disease to any particular agent in this point in time. We still have an open mind about what we are ultimately going to learn," she said.

Dr. Gerberding said that even without knowing what causes SARS, control measures appear to have been effective. The only people known to have been infected are those who have had close contact with another infected person. These are either people who stayed in a certain Hong Kong hotel, hospital workers caring for SARS patients, or members of patients' families. "The fact that we have been able to prevent spread to the community suggests that the infection control, isolation practices in the hospital have been effective," she said. "In Vientnam, for example, there have been no new cases reported in the last 24 hours and that suggests that we may have limited spread beyond the first generation of individuals."

SARS is thought to be linked to an earlier outbreak of an unidentified illness that sickened more than 300 people and killed five in China's Guangdong province. A Chinese doctor who treated these people apparently brought the disease to Hong Kong.

At the invitation of China's Health Ministry, a World Health Organization team of U.S., British, German, and Australian infectious disease experts is on its way to investigate the Guangdong outbreak.