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CDC: Mystery illness spreads more easily than first thought

From Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The mystery illness that has sickened 1,550 people worldwide appears to spread more easily than was first thought, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier this month, when cases of the mystery illness started appearing in North America, health officials thought it could be spread only by close, face-to-face contact, such as that which occurs between a doctor and a patient or among family members.

The disease, which has killed 54 people in 13 countries, most of them in mainland China and Hong Kong, is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

"The potential for infecting large numbers of people is great," Gerberding told reporters Saturday. "We may be in the early stages of what could be a larger problem. On the other hand, this is new and we have a lot of questions about the overall spread."

She added that the death rate of SARS is relatively low. About 3.5 percent of people who get the disease die from it. The rest recover, usually within about seven days, she said.

"If there's any good news about SARS right now, it's that the majority of patients do appear to recover, and the death rate is lower than what we see with influenza epidemics," she said.

Rapid spread throughout communities in Hong Kong and Vietnam suggests the infectious agent causing SARS might be airborne, meaning that the disease could spread even without face-to-face contact, Gerberding said.

In addition, she said, the infectious agent might survive on inanimate objects, such as tabletops, infecting others that way.

The CDC also extended its travel advisory for SARS on Saturday to include all of mainland China as well as Hong Kong; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Singapore.

Evidence points to a never-before-recognized strain of coronavirus as the cause of SARS, according to the CDC, which is working to devise a diagnostic test to distribute to state health departments.

Coronaviruses typically can survive for two to three hours on inanimate surfaces, Gerberding said.

In the United States, most of the 62 infected people had recently returned from an affected country. Five of the cases lived with an infected traveler, and two are health care workers who cared for SARS patients in the United States.

Most of the U.S. cases are being cared for at home, where they have been ordered to remain and wear a mask. Family members have been advised to call their doctor if they get headache, fatigue, a fever or cough -- all symptoms of SARS.

Gerberding said it was unlikely someone could get the illness simply by sharing a public place, such as an elevator or an escalator, with an infected person.

"The bottom line is we don't know, but what we can tell from the pattern of transmission so far is there is no evidence in this country that those activities would pose a risk," she said.

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