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China: Doctors Did Not Recognize New Disease - 2003-03-22

China's Minister of Health says doctors in southern China did not recognize that many pneumonia patients were suffering from a deadly new disease. The disease, now known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, could be linked to outbreaks in 13 countries. China's Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang is admitting the spread of a new virus in China's southern Guangdong region might have gone unnoticed for several months.

Mr. Zhang addressed the media on a rare visit to Hong Kong on Saturday. He says that over the past two years in Guangdong, 800 out of 5,000 pneumonia cases surveyed were considered atypical, but those cases were not the same as the cases in Hong Kong.

He adds that while the recent pneumonia outbreak could be related to similar outbreaks overseas, southern China is not necessarily where the new virus originated.

In China's Guangdong province, at least five people died last month in an outbreak that sickened 300. Since then, the capital city Beijing has reported more deaths from suspected SARS.

China recently invited international experts to help trace the sickness, but some experts accuse China of doing too little, too late to prevent the spread of SARS.

However, WHO is reporting progress in the diagnosis and treatment of SARS. Speaking alongside the Chinese Minister of Health on Saturday, a World Health Organization doctor says new laboratory studies reinforce theories that the virus is related to measles and mumps.

Shigeru Omi is a medical expert with the WHO. "Just last night WHO announced that a laboratory has succeeded in growing what may be the infectious agent in cell culture. This is a major step toward the development of a diagnostic test," he said.

The disease starts with flu-like symptoms but quickly attacks a patient's respiratory system, say doctors.

Hong Kong health authorities revealed last week that a visiting Guangdong doctor infected seven hotel guests and a local resident. Those cases then spread the disease in Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore and Vietnam.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control said Friday that the number of suspected cases of SARS there has doubled since the beginning of the week.

Hong Kong remains one of the worst hit cities. One more pneumonia patient died on Saturday bringing the death toll in the city to seven. 222 patients are being treated while 210 are confirmed SARS cases. And while seven patients have recovered, 38 people remain in intensive care.

The number of patients in Hanoi, many of them hospital staff, has climbed to at least 60. The U.S. State Department suspended travel by its officials and diplomats to Vietnam on Saturday, citing reduced availability of adequate medical facilities.