- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

Eleven Americans who recently traveled to Southeast Asia are suspected of having contracted a mysterious new strain of pneumonia, which has stricken at least 264 persons worldwide and killed nine this month, health officials said yesterday.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said at a news conference that the 11 cases have not been officially confirmed as having the deadly infection, dubbed severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. She said all 11 are being kept in isolation.

Given the patients' travel history and respiratory symptoms, they are considered suspect cases, she said. Symptoms of SARS include fever, dry cough and headaches.

Dr. Gerberding also informed reporters that the Hong Kong Health Department had determined that seven of the initial SARS victims, including one who died, had lived on or visited the same floor of a Hong Kong hotel before the outbreak.

Hong Kong health officials said the seven victims had been on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel between Feb. 12 and March 2. One of the seven was a Hong Kong resident whose illness spread to dozens of employees at the Prince of Wales Hotel in that city.

"This is an epidemiological clue that suggests to us that close contact in that hotel may have been a common source of exposure for at least some of the initial cases. But we still know that the majority of individuals with this infection were either health care personnel or close family contacts of cases," Dr. Gerberding said.

"Right now the floor of the hotel is closed, and local health officials are taking steps to make sure that there is no additional transmission there. But we're very reassured by the fact that none of the hotel staff is ill," she said.

Investigators yesterday indicated that they could be honing in on the cause and source of the disease, which some had feared might be as contagious as the 1918 Spanish flu. But they ruled out influenza and concluded that a new strain of pneumonia was the pathogen.

The outbreak spurred the World Health Organization last weekend to declare its first "global alert" in a decade. WHO officials said yesterday that thanks to a quick response by local public health leaders, the spread of SARS to North America and Europe has been restricted.

"The outbreak, we feel, is on its way to containment, at least outside of Vietnam and Hong Kong, and China, if it's linked," David Heymann, head of communicable diseases for WHO, told reporters at a news conference in Geneva.

Between November and last month, a flulike illness infected more than 300 people in the Guandong province of southern China, killing five. WHO officials say they are not sure whether that illness was SARS.

As of yesterday, WHO reported 150 SARS cases in Hong Kong, including five deaths. It said there were 56 cases in Vietnam, two of which were fatal. Singapore has 31 confirmed cases.

Hong Kong researchers said yesterday that they had identified SARS as a virus belonging to the paramyxovirus family. Scientists in Germany earlier said they found a paramyxoviruslike microbe in specimens taken from a patient there with SARS.

Paramyxovirus is the cause of one strain of influenza, as well as measles, mumps and rubella.

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