Officials Target Cause of 'Mystery' Disease

Virus Suspected in Outbreak of Pneumonia-Like Illness

A woman wears a gas mask as she walks outside Hong Kong's Prince of Wales hospital.

A woman wears a gas mask as she walks outside Hong Kong's Prince of Wales hospital, where patients diagnosed with a mysterious pneumonia-like disease are treated. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

The Facts on SARS

A new form of pneumonia has spread around the world over the past month. Here is what health officials know so far about the disease, called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS:

Symptoms: Fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

Cause: Evidence suggests a virus is the cause.

Incubation: Symptoms start showing about 2 to 7 days after a person is infected.

Cases: More than 260 suspected cases and nine deaths have been reported in China, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

How it's spread: Through close or direct contact.

Health officials advise anyone with the above symptoms to seek treatment, and let doctors know if they've traveled recently.

Sources: CDC, WHO

An outbreak of a new type of pneumonia known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, is on its way to containment, at least outside of Asia, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, scientists have found evidence that a virus is possibly the cause of the disease. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports.

Microbiologists in Hong Kong and Germany used powerful electron microscopes to hunt for unusual organisms in samples from SARS patients. The researchers say a virus similar in shape to viruses that cause measles and mumps may be the cause. It's known as a paramyxovirus. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta caution more work needs to be done to determine if the virus is responsible.

So far, the World Health Organization has identified more than 260 suspected SARS cases, and nine people have died. Symptoms of the disease include a sudden high fever, a dry cough and difficulty breathing. Most of those infected live in Southeast Asia, have recently traveled there or live with someone who recently traveled there.

The World Health Organization's Dr. David Heyman says the global alert sent out nearly a week ago has worked remarkably well to help contain the outbreak. He says new cases continue to surface, but country health officials are isolating them properly and staving off further transmission.

In the United States, federal officials have identified 11 possible cases of SARS. Labs at the CDC are analyzing specimens.

Although there are no definitive answers about the disease yet, health officials worldwide agree: SARS is likely a naturally occurring outbreak not an intentional bio-terrorist act.

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