For the first time, the Chinese government has admitted that almost about 3 dozen people have died and almost 800 are ill in an outbreak of the new mystery disease known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Until now, they insisted that only five people had died from it. With all the war news on TV, our media is ignoring the increasing spread of SARS here in the U.S.?but not so in Canada, where they’ve declared a health emergency and may soon force people into quarantine.

Dr. Meirion Evans, of the World Health Organization (WHO) says, “We’re getting a more complete picture. It’s certainly been one of the objectives of the mission to clarify whether the outbreak in China was the same disease as what’s been seen outside of China.”

While SARS is spreading rapidly and schools are being closed in Asian countries, at least 80% of the people who catch it seem to recover. 20% become critically ill and 10% eventually die from it. Victims who are older than 40 and have other health problems, such as heart or liver disease, are most likely to move to the life-threatening phase of the lung infection.

80 doctors treating SARS patients in 13 countries participated in an electronic meeting organized by WHO, which enabled doctors trying to save patients worldwide to exchange information over the telephone and internet about how best to diagnose and treat them. “For the first time, we brought all the clinicians together,” says WHO’s Mark Salter.

As a result of this conference, a distinctive pattern of symptoms has become clear. Two to seven days after being exposed, patients suddenly develop a high fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and start shaking and experiencing chills, shortness of breath and a dry cough. Some people also experience headaches, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, tiredness, confusion, rashes and diarrhea. Chest X-rays show a distinctive pattern in which a cloudy area appears in one part of a lung and then spreads to both lungs.

After about six or seven days, about 80 to 90% of patients begin to improve, while the remaining 10 to 20% percent deteriorate and require intensive care. Some even need a mechanical ventilator to help them breathe.

Meanwhile in Canada, health authorities in Ontario have advised hundreds of people to quarantine themselves. A Canadian hospital that treated two SARS patients who died has been closed, along with a nearby school where some children came down with flu-like symptoms.

Health officer Dr. Sheela Basrur says said the number of people who will eventually be quarantined could be “in the thousands?This is an incident of unprecedented scope and magnitude.” The Ontario government has designated the illness a reportable, communicable and virulent disease under the Health Protection and Promotion Act, which means people can be quarantined against their will.

The overall mortality rate for SARS is about 4%, which is similar to that of West Nile virus. No antibiotics work against SARS. The antiviral drug ribavirin has been used by a number of doctors, but its effectiveness isn’t clear. During the electronic meeting, doctors agreed to organize a study to test ribavirin’s usefulness. “Clinicians around the globe are stretched to the limit,” Mark Salter of WHO says. “Everybody is working very hard to try to not only identify the agent that’s causing this, but to find methods that might be effective in treating it.”

If you have any symptoms, get medical help immediately, then get into bed with a good book. To lift your spirits, you can’t do better than Whitley’s two lovely ladies.

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