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U.S. Official Fears the Spread of SARS Won't Slow for Long

HHS chief Thompson notes that its type of virus is most infectious in colder months, and says the U.S. and Europe could have fatalities.

May 21, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

The SARS epidemic may be slowing down, but it could come back with a vengeance in the fall, bringing deaths to the United States and Europe, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said Tuesday.

"I am not confident at all," he told a meeting of European Union officials in Brussels. "I do not think SARS is going to go away. Even though it may level off now, it could come back in the fall and then you can, I think, anticipate that you will have deaths in all the continents. The virus knows no borders whatsoever."

Thompson's concern arises because severe acute respiratory syndrome is caused by a coronavirus, a family of viruses that causes about 30% of common colds.

Coronaviruses are typically most infectious in winter, with outbreaks declining in spring and summer and then rebounding in the fall.

Taiwan, meanwhile, reported its largest daily jump in cases to date, with 39 new cases and 12 deaths. That brings the toll there to 383 cases and 52 deaths, the largest number outside mainland China and Hong Kong.

As of Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization, there has been a cumulative total of 7,919 probable SARS cases and 662 deaths in 28 countries plus Taiwan.

Tuesday's increase in Taiwan was larger than that of China and Hong Kong combined. China reported only 17 new cases and five deaths, while Hong Kong reported four new infections and two deaths.

China's Deputy Health Minister Ma Xiaowei told the World Health Congress in Geneva that the disease has peaked there and is on the decline. And there are no signs of SARS clusters in the country's rural areas, he added.

That is definitely not the case in Taiwan, which has the "most rapidly growing outbreak," according to the WHO.

The problem has arisen in large part, the WHO said, because of "lapses in infection control, particularly in emergency rooms."

More than 90% of SARS cases in Taiwan have occurred in hospitals, with outbreaks in at least six major hospitals.

On Tuesday, Kaohsiung Medical University in southern Taiwan became the latest to quarantine its staff.

More than 140 medical workers at two major hospitals in Taipei have quit rather than work with SARS patients. At least six doctors and nurses have died from the disease.

Dr. Lee Ming-liang, who heads the island's SARS committee, said his country had little time to contain the outbreak.

"If we cannot effectively control the epidemic within five weeks, especially hospital infections, it could be hard to control," he said.

The WHO on Tuesday removed the Philippines from its list of areas with recent local transmission of SARS. The last probable case that was locally acquired in that country occurred April 30, so the country had gone more than 20 days -- twice the incubation period -- with no new cases.

The Philippines has reported 12 probable cases of SARS, five of them imported. In one of those imported cases, a Toronto nurse who returned home infected seven family members.

The WHO also said that the world's airlines were no longer likely to be a source of transmission of the disease.

According to the agency, only 16 people contracted SARS aboard airliners, and all of those were in the early stages of the outbreak.

Now that passengers are screened for SARS symptoms, the chances of contracting it on a plane are infinitesimal, said Dr. Michael Ryan of the WHO.

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