A handful of suspected cases of a deadly flu-like illness surfaced in new spots around the globe yesterday, but medical experts said there “should not be panic” because the spread is not as aggressive as most forms of influenza.
There also were no new fatalities since the nine first reported when the World Health Organization issued its unusual global alert over the weekend. WHO officials said they were investigating suspicious cases in England, France, Israel, Slovenia and Australia, all of which previously had none.
Most of the 167 cases that have appeared in the past three weeks are health workers in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore. China said 300 people had what appeared to be the same illness in an outbreak that began last November in Guangdong province.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was skeptical that the four cases it was looking into would be verified as “severe acute respiratory syndrome,” or SARS, the name given the unidentified illness. The CDC already has ruled out 10 other suspicious cases.
Disease investigators said it could take weeks to determine the cause of the mysterious outbreak.
WHO officials also said that for the first time, China was allowing teams of experts into the country to take a closer look at its own earlier outbreak, which killed five people before it was brought under control. WHO investigators should be there by week’s end, the U.N. agency said.
Experts believe that the most likely explanation for the respiratory illness is an exotic virus or – the most feared scenario – a new form of influenza.
However, WHO’s communicable diseases chief, David Heymann, said the illness doesn’t seem to spread as quickly a flu.
“It isn’t contagious at the level of many other infectious diseases,” he said. “A normal influenza would be very contagious to people sitting in the same room.”
So far, experts say there is no evidence the infection spreads by casual contact, such as sitting next to somebody in an airplane.
“There should not be panic. This is a disease which, it seems, requires very close contact with patients and it is mainly hospital workers who have been infected in the first wave of infections. Now we are seeing that some other family members have been infected,” Heymann said.
CDC head Dr. Julie Gerberding said she doubts the flu virus is responsible, since Hong Kong labs, which are very good at diagnosing influenza, have not been able to identify it.
The incubation period for SARS appears to be three to seven days. It often begins with a high fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as headache and sore throat. Victims typically develop coughs, pneumonia, shortness of breath and other breathing difficulties. Death results from respiratory failure.
The Chinese said 7 percent of patients there required breathing tubes, but most eventually got better, especially if they were not also stricken with a bacterial infection. In addition, the disease seemed to weaken as it passed from person to person.
That’s encouraging, WHO officials say, adding that some of the patients in the latest outbreak seem to be recovering.
China’s provision of a written summary of its outbreak was an unprecedented step of cooperation by Beijing in global disease surveillance, Heymann said. It was also an important one, partly because scientists have for years been warning that a new influenza pandemic is inevitable and new types of flu often develop in that part of the world, Heymann said.
“The big concern in this area of the world is that one day another influenza virus could hop the barrier between animals and humans. In the 20th century three viruses crossed, and the last two, in the ’50s and ’60s, occurred in the southern China area,” Heymann said.
In another unprecedented move, the WHO yesterday created a “virtual research center,” which links 10 laboratories in 11 countries to search for the cause in cooperation instead of competition.
A Slovene woman suspected of suffering from the illness was listed in stable condition yesterday at a hospital in the capital, Ljubljana. She had returned from a trip to Vietnam 10 days ago.
French health authorities said yesterday that two people who returned from Asia were hospitalized in Paris after doctors suspected they might have the illness.
In Israel, doctors at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital said yesterday they have quarantined a 33-year-old man who has flu symptoms and returned from Hong Kong three days ago.