Mystery Illness

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The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said travel exposure history is key to determining whether you're suffering from a mysterious form of pneumonia that has killed nine people.

CDC Director Doctor Julie Gerberding said if you haven't traveled to Asia, it's unlikely you will develop the illness.

Travelers entering the United States after visiting any of the Asian areas affected by a deadly, new flu-like illness are being given cards alerting them to watch for symptoms.

Gerberding said another clue is that a person's symptoms of coughing, fever or difficulty breathing quickly develop into pneumonia.

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SARS: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome


  • A fever of about 101°, coughing and shortness of breath.
  • Other possible symptoms include headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, confusion, rash and diarrhea.
  • Death is caused by respiratory failure.


  • SARS appears to spread through close contact, such as between family members or between patient and doctor. Most of the recent 150 cases have been in health care workers.
  • Experts believe SARS is spread through coughing, sneezing and other contact with nasal fluids.
  • SARS appears three to seven days after exposure.


  • Researchers don't know whether SARS is caused by bacteria or a virus, and they may not know the answer for several more days.
  • The illness does not respond well to standard antibiotics, suggesting that a virus, not bacteria, is the cause. The disease could be a new form of influenza.


  • Those suspected of having SARS are being quarantined. The best treatment is unclear because different medicines, both antibiotic and antiviral, have been used in different hospitals.
  • Doctors don't know why some victims die and others recover. It could be because of the many drugs they are being given, or just the normal course of the disease.

Illnesses and Death

  • There have been 150 cases of SARS in the past three weeks -- none in the U.S. Nine people have died. Seven of those deaths were in Asia, and two people died in Toronto, Canada, after visiting Hong Kong.
  • Health officials also suspect the disease infected about 300 people and killed five in Guangdong Province, China, dating back to mid-November.
  • There have been no confirmed cases of SARS in the United States, but there have been a few in Canada.


  • SARS was first recognized in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 26.
  • An outbreak of pneumonia of similar symptoms struck Guangdong province, China, last November and was only brought under control in mid-February.


  • U.S. health officials said travelers should consider postponing trips to Hong Kong or Guangdong province in China, or to Hanoi, Vietnam.
  • People who visit areas affected by SARS will be given a special card when they re-enter the United States. The card says:
    “During your recent travel, you may have been exposed to cases of severe acute respiratory disease syndrome. You should monitor your health for at least seven days. If you become ill with fever accompanied by cough or difficulty in breathing, you should consult a physician.” Travelers should save the card and give it to a doctor in case symptoms appear.

Could SARS Be Related to Bioterrorism?

  • Not likely. Experts said the SARS is almost certainly a contagious infection. The head of the CDC, Julie Gerberding, said nothing about the pattern of the spread of the disease suggests bioterrorism.

Pandemic Facts

  • A pandemic is an epidemic over a wide geographic area -- possibly the entire world. Pandemics happen about every 30 years, and health officials long have feared the world is overdue for a major flu attack.
  • The last major pandemic was in 1918 and 1919. Forty million people worldwide died from the Spanish flu.
  • The flu killed more than a million people in 1957 and 1958, and another million in 1968 and 1969.
  • The Centers for Disease Control has a network of contacts in Asia that watches for flu outbreaks. To help identify and monitor SARS, the CDC has activated its emergency operations center to coordinate its teams in various parts of the world.

Source: The Associated Press contributed to this report.