A group of SARS patients in Hong Kong have unusual symptoms that make doctors think the virus may be mutating and becoming more severe. The 300 patients at the quarantined Amoy Gardens apartment building there have more serious cases of SARS than most other patients. Also, SARS seems to be targeting younger, healthier people, unlike the early cases, which mostly killed the aged or infirm. And it’s been confirmed that infants can catch SARS in the womb from their mothers.

The Amoy Gardens patients are three times as likely to suffer early diarrhea, meaning they may have a mutation that attacks the intestines as well as the lungs. These patients are also twice as likely to need intensive care and are less responsive to a group of anti-viral drugs and steroids. Even the medical workers who caught the infection from Amoy Gardens patients are more seriously ill.

Coronaviruses in animals mutate in this way. A bovine gut coronavirus that somewhat similar to SARS can also cause severe pneumonia in cattle. In the 1980s, a pig gut coronavirus suddenly mutated into a respiratory infection in pigs.

Dr. Ko Wing-man, of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, says saying 10-20% of Hong Kong’s SARS patients are not responding well to treatment, perhaps because the virus has mutated. Hong Kong’s health secretary, Dr. Yeoh Eng-kiong, thought 95% of SARS patients would recover with the help of ribavirin and steroids, if they had no serious pre-existing health problems, but this is no longer the case.

Three babies born to Hong Kong mothers with SARS have difficulty breathing and may have gotten SARS from their mothers before they were born. The babies were delivered prematurely by Caesarian section to avoid complications from medicines used to treat SARS. Two have a fever, which is common in SARS patients. One of the infants was saved after the mother died from the disease.

Researchers can’t figure out how a policeman who was enforcing the quarantine of the Amoy Gardens apartments in Hong Kong got SARS, since he didn’t come into contact with any of the residents.

As we brace for this epidemic, let’s remember how strong and resourceful human beings have always been, even in our earliest days.

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