SARS seems to be spreading in China

Of 74 new cases, many in poor area unprepared to deal with deadly illness

April 15, 2003|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEIJING - Among the 74 new cases of SARS reported yesterday in China are 47 in the interior province of Shanxi, raising the specter of a new cluster of infections far from the initial outbreak in southern Guangdong.

The World Health Organization expressed concern, saying the health care system in poorer provinces such as Shanxi, which is in China's declining coal-mining belt, may be ill equipped to deal with the disease.

Also yesterday, departing from earlier assurances that the illness was under control, Premier Wen Jiabao was quoted in newspapers calling the SARS outbreak "grave." President Hu Jintao was shown visiting hospitals in Guangdong and telling medical workers he was "anxious for the masses."

In Hong Kong, the government reported that severe acute respiratory syndrome infected 40 more people and killed seven others. Worldwide, more than 3,100 SARS cases have been reported, with 144 deaths.

Although many of the previous fatalities were elderly or suffered from other chronic health problems, six of the deaths reported in Hong Kong over the weekend were people ranging in age from 35 to 52 who had no prior health problems.

The concern in China yesterday was that the number of cases in Shanxi, a northeastern province, is rising more than expected. Including yesterday's, the province reports a total of 79 cases of SARS.

Jim Palmer, spokesman for the team of World Health Organization investigators visiting China, said doctors had expected to see isolated cases spring up around the country because the SARS outbreak in Guangdong peaked during the Lunar New Year traveling season.

"Generally speaking, we had a sense this was going to happen but not necessarily this kind of a spike," Palmer said. A team of WHO investigators would probably want to travel to Shanxi to investigate, he said.

The organization had no details on the new cases, but it has listed Shanxi as a region with locally transmitted cases, meaning that not all patients arrived in the province sick.

In a report last week, the group noted that "many of China's poorer provinces may not have adequate resources, facilities and equipment to cope with outbreaks of SARS." Even in Guangdong, the country's richest province, where health care capacity is exceptional for China, the disease "placed an enormous strain on the health-care system," according to the report.

China has come under criticism because the government was slow in cooperating with international health officials and suppressed early news reports about the severity of the epidemic, leading to charges of a cover-up. The government appears to have responded and has set aside some of its political concerns in acknowledging it has an epidemic.

Though little information on SARS had been disseminated through last week, the media are reporting more fully on the dangers of the disease and measures that can be taken to prevent it.

In the United States, federal scientists announced yesterday that they have sequenced the genetic makeup of the coronavirus suspected of causing SARS and said it was almost identical to the sequence announced over the weekend by Canadian researchers.

Knowing the genetic makeup of the virus should quickly make tests available to detect the virus, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other federal laboratories are attempting to develop a vaccine for the virus, but it will take at least a year before it might become available, she said.

Researchers for the Army and drug companies also are testing their stores of antiviral agents to determine whether any are effective in halting SARS, Gerberding said.

She cautioned that some companies were advertising devices to protect against the virus that are not proved to be effective. Instead, people should follow basic procedures such as washing hands and wearing surgical masks in the presence of people who are ill.

Michael A. Lev is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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