Disease is killing younger, healthier

SARS treatments prove less effective than hoped, Hong Kong officials say


HONG KONG -- The respiratory disease known as SARS is beginning to kill younger and healthier adults, as medical treatments are proving less effective than originally hoped, health officials here said yesterday.

Until the weekend, those who died from severe acute respiratory syndrome had mostly been older than 60, and often were suffering from other health problems.

But eight people with the disease died here this weekend, and five of them were between 35 and 52 and did not have medical conditions that might have been contributing factors, said Dr. Liu Shao-haei, a senior manager of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority.

Canada and Singapore each reported three more SARS-related deaths as well over the weekend.

Doctors in Hong Kong had been insisting that their treatments for SARS were broadly effective, and they had used this as an incentive for people to enter hospitals when they felt sick.

But Liu said at a news conference yesterday that a combination of ribavarin and steroids, while helpful for many, had not improved the condition of some patients, whose health has continued to deteriorate even after they entered intensive-care units.

"Some of the patients respond well to treatment, and some do not," he said.

The disclosures came as President Hu Jintao of China came to Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city that abuts Hong Kong. He met with Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, and the leaders of Guangdong province on how to curb the spread of SARS.

Dr. Lam Ping-yan, Hong Kong's deputy director of health, acknowledged another problem at yesterday's news conference with Liu when he said that "quite a number" of people had been arriving in Hong Kong and immediately seeking medical care for SARS. There had been scattered reports of SARS-infected people from mainland China entering hospitals here because Hong Kong has a better medical system.

The World Health Organization said Friday that SARS had hit Hong Kong harder than anywhere else, for reasons that remain unclear. Including 42 new cases reported yesterday, Hong Kong has three-fifths of the world's current SARS patients, with 887 patients still in hospitals. Forty have died here, and another 223 have recovered and been discharged from hospitals.

But there have been questions raised about the veracity of mainland China's figures. China has reported fewer than 250 current cases, as well as more than 1,000 patients who are said to have fallen sick and then recovered over the winter, plus 60 who died.

Also over the weekend, scientists in Canada announced that they had broken the genetic code of the virus suspected of causing SARS.

Sequencing the genome -- which computers at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver completed at 4 a.m. Saturday after a team worked on the problem 24 hours a day for a mere six days -- is the first step toward developing a diagnostic test for the virus, and possibly a vaccine.

The genome appears to be that of a "completely new" coronavirus unrelated to any known human or animal viruses, a scientist at the Canadian agency said.

A competing U.S. team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is reaching the same conclusion, and scientists from both teams said the virus' startling novelty could make it harder to trace what animal or bird it came from, if indeed it did jump from another species.

In the United States, 160 people are believed to be infected.

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