Mystery Pneumonia Linked to Common Cold
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, March 25, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. scientists believe a mysterious form of severe pneumonia that has infected 456 people in 13 countries is a new form of the virus that causes the common cold.
Tests by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide "very strong evidence" that indicates a form of the Coronavirus is the cause of the illness, CDC Director Julie Gerberding told reporters Monday.
Two of the three known forms of human Coronavirus cause the common cold, but the strain that could be responsible for this new disease looks like a new and emerging type, Gerberding said.
Laboratories in at least nine countries are racing to find the cause of the atypical pneumonia, called Severe Acute Respiratory System (SARS), which appears to be spread through close contact, in particular coughing and sneezing.
According to the latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO), 17 people have died from SARS - 10 in Hong Kong, four in Vietnam and three in Canada. SARS is also suspected in five deaths in the Guangdong province of China, which is where world health officials believe the outbreak started.
The link to a new form of Coronavirus could be troubling, as there is no specific treatment for the existing strains.
A new form that causes an easily transferable respiratory illness has the potential to be a dangerous new development.
"There is no on-the-shelf medication that we know [that] has activity against this particular family of virus," Gerberding said.
The illness begins generally with a fever greater than 100.4°F (38.0°C). The fever is sometimes associated with chills, headache, malaise, and body aches. Some persons experience mild respiratory symptoms at the outset.
After three to seven days, the person may develop a dry, nonproductive cough which might be accompanied by or progress to the point where insufficient oxygen is getting to the blood. In 10 to 20 percent of cases, patients will require mechanical ventilation.
The CDC is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Defense to test the virus against various antiviral drugs to try and identify an effective treatment for the disease.
CDC's announcement conflicts with earlier pronouncements by German and Chinese scientists, who have said they believe a member of the Paramyxoviridae family could be responsible for SARS.
The Paramyxoviridae family contains viruses that cause respiratory infections and childhood illnesses including mumps, measles and croup.
Gerberding said CDC's tests did not find evidence of Paramyxoviridae, but she stressed that this should not rule out these earlier findings.
"[Coronavirus] is our leading hypothesis based on careful science," she said. "Everyone should keep an open mind."
The CDC has been able to culture Coronavirus in tissue from two infected patients and has found evidence of it in infected tissues. Gerberding explained that the virus can be seen very clearly in kidney specimens and respiratory fluids.
In addition to its findings, CDC has received "suggestions that other laboratories have identified a coronavirus as well," said Larry Anderson, chief of the Respiratory Pathogens Branch at the National Center for Infectious Disease.
The spread of SARS is "an illustration of the global sort of threat that infectious diseases can pose," said James Hughes, director of the U.S. National Center for Infectious Diseases.
Over the past six weeks, the disease appears to have spread from rural China around the world. The World Health Organization and many governments have put out travel warnings for anyone traveling to and from China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.
Hong Kong health officials, after days of denial, have urged the public to watch closely for symptoms of the disease, which center on high fever and one or more respiratory afflictions, such as coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.
At least 10 individuals in Hong Kong have died from SARS and some 260 people are infected.
Singapore has 65 reported cases, but officials have quarantined some 740 people and invoked infectious Disease Act for the first time since the city-state gained independence in 1965.
Vietnam has reported 58 cases, and 37 have been reported in the United States. Individuals in France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand and the United Kingdom are also believed to have SARS.
Hughes praised the "historic" extent of international cooperation and collaboration to find the cause and cure for SARS.
"Laboratories around the world who at other times might be competing with each other to be first to sort this out are sharing all their information on a daily basis as it is developing," Hughes said. "That is why we are able to make as rapid progress as we have made."
More information on SARS can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/sars/
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