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When New Diseases Emerge, Experts Are Faster On The Uptake

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When New Diseases Emerge, Experts Are Faster On The Uptake

Public Health

When New Diseases Emerge, Experts Are Faster On The Uptake

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Scientists have recently discovered three new human viruses. One, from the Arabian Peninsula, causes severe pneumonia and kidney failure. Another sent two Missouri farmers to the hospital with severe fatigue and headaches. The third, in central Africa, causes a disease similar to Ebola. The unsettling part of this report is the reminder that there are new diseases to be found in the world. But this story also reveals how good experts have become at finding them. NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: The most striking thing about all three new viruses - they were found on the basis of just two or three human cases. That's a long way from where the world was 10 years ago, when another new virus popped up in Asia and quickly went global. Here's an ABC News clip from mid-March of 2003.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The government is scrambling to keep a mysterious and deadly disease at bay. It was first detected in China last month and has already spread through half a dozen Asian countries.

KNOX: The mysterious new disease would become known as SARS - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Before it was stopped, it would strike 8,000 people and kill more than 900 worldwide. But that early report turned out to be wrong in one major respect. SARS didn't start in February of '03. The outbreak started four months earlier in southern China, but few knew, since Chinese authorities weren't telling. Dr. John Brownstein of Children's Hospital in Boston says that wouldn't happen today.

DR. JOHN BROWNSTEIN: Today, we would have seen that information bubbling up many different places.

KNOX: Brownstein and his colleagues collect real-time reports about disease outbreaks from all over the world and display them on a website called HealthMap.

BROWNSTEIN: Ten years after SARS, I think it's very difficult to imagine a situation, an important public health event, where that information isn't getting out in some form, via text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, chat rooms. I think there's very few places on earth where we're not able to get citizen reporting and information.

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: Communication about health related issues just travels with the speed of light today.

KNOX: Dr. William Schaffner is a Vanderbilt University specialist in infectious diseases.

SCHAFFNER: I think the problem of international communication - openness and sharing of information - is largely resolved.

KNOX: One big reason is a new set of international health regulations that went into effect in 2007. They require countries to report disease outbreaks right away to the World Health Organization. Dr. Isabelle Nuttall of the W.H.O says the agency is much better equipped to handle new diseases.

DR. ISABELLE NUTTALL: We are much better organized. We've learned over the years what was done for SARS as an improvisation, I would say, is now extremely well structured.

KNOX: Nuttall is coordinating the W.H.O.'s current response to the new virus that emerged in Saudi Arabia. It killed one Saudi man in June, and last month, put another man from neighboring Qatar into an intensive care unit in London. The new virus is a relative of the one that causes SARS, but fortunately it appears far less contagious.

Better communications aside, the world has another big advantage over the SARS era. Here's another clip from that 2003 news report on SARS.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Despite 10 days of testing, they still don't know whether it's caused by a virus or a bacteria.

KNOX: In contrast, the new Saudi microbe was immediately identified as a new virus in the same family as SARS while the very first patient was in a Saudi Arabian hospital. Then, when the second patient showed up three months later, scientists in four countries got to work and figured out its full genetic code in record time.

DR. AB OSTERHAUS: Today, we are speaking about days to a week, rather than a month. So we have become much faster.

KNOX: Dr. Ab Osterhaus of Erasmus University in Rotterdam is one of the scientists working on the new virus. The next step is also critical - a blood test to detect antibodies to the new virus.

OSTERHAUS: We need a test, and I think a test will soon be available. And that would give you eventually an indication on whether the virus at all has been spreading among the population.

KNOX: You could tell scientists if some people get infected without getting sick. They could infect others who might be vulnerable. Or maybe people can only get the new virus from an animal or insect. Those are important questions as several million people converge on Saudi Arabia this month for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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