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WHO Experts Seek to Link Mysterious Flu to Chinese Illness - 2003-03-23

A team of experts from the World Health Organization is in Beijing trying to verify whether a flu-like illness reported in China is linked to an outbreak of a mysterious type of pneumonia in Southeast Asia and other regions in the world. The latest WHO figures put the number of suspected cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) at nearly 390, including 11 deaths.

These latest WHO figures do not include China. This is because the health agency is not yet sure whether the outbreaks in China and those outside that country are related. The Chinese government puts the number of suspected cases at more than 300, including four deaths.

It now is known that this mysterious flu-like illness first appeared in China in November. But the government did not inform the World Health Organization of the outbreak until mid-February.

The Head of WHO's Communicable Disease Program, David Heymann, says there is a growing belief that the illness which has mainly affected people in Hong Kong and Vietnam is related to the outbreak in China's southern Guangdong province. He says WHO will have more answers once the experts look over the Chinese records.

He says the cause of the disease still has not been identified, but laboratory tests indicate that a family of microbes called paramyxovirus may be behind severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"When you are looking at this virus theory - now closer to reality - that this virus, this paramyxovirus has caused this, you have to realize that this is a whole range of different viruses," said Dr. Heymann. "The paramyxoviruses that range from some that cause measles and mumps to some that cause common respiratory infections in many people and which are sometimes even asymptomatic. So, it is a whole range of things."

Dr. Heymann says once the cause is identified, then a diagnostic test can be developed that can detect the infection in the blood or other body secretions. While severe acute respiratory syndrome is an airborne disease, it is not very contagious.

WHO communicable disease expert Julie Hall says people have to be in very close contact to become infected. She says when people have been cared for with the correct protective equipment in the hospital, no further spread of the infection has occurred.

"This is very promising," asserted Ms. Hall, "because it allows us to believe that as long as we have got heightened surveillance, as long as people are aware of the early signs and symptoms of the disease around the world, it means that people can be taken into hospital, into that protective environment, and that we can hopefully help to stop the transmission of this disease any further."

The World Health Organization says the illness appears to be contained in Vietnam, Hong Kong and China. It notes in regions outside Asia, there have been no secondary transmissions. A main reason for this, it says, is that people now are more aware of the disease and have been seeking medical care early for suspicious symptoms.