Researchers searching for SARS have discovered another new virus in American children. At the Yale School of Medicine, they found that 19 out of 296 local children they studied had respiratory infections of an unknown cause?but they didn’t have SARS. The new virus is called hMPV, and its discovery solves a long mystery about where certain childhood illnesses come from.

“I think this virus probably accounts for a small but significant portion of respiratory tract illness in children,” says Dr. Jeffrey S. Kahn. Before this, 15 to 34% of pneumonia cases in children, along with a lung infection called bronchiolitis, had no known cause. “If you step back and look at pneumonia in general, about 50% of the time we can identify a cause,” Kahn says. “Obviously, in the other 50% we don’t know what causes it. So that suggests that there are unknown pathogens out there.”

Human metapneumovirus (hMPV) was discovered in 2001 in the Netherlands. “When it was first reported, everybody said, ‘wow, that’s very interesting,’ and everybody started going back to their freezers where they kept samples, and started to probe samples. Now it’s been found in many countries,” Kahn says.

It’s been found in adults in New York, meaning it’s spreading throughout the U.S. It’s also been found in the U.K., Canada, Australia, Japan, Finland, and France. While it can make patients sick enough to need hospitalization, there’s no indication that hMPV spreads as quickly as SARS. Kahn says, “The disease caused by this virus is really just beginning to be explored.”

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