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Children avoid SARS outbreak

Hong Kong classes have been suspended for two weeks.
Hong Kong classes have been suspended for two weeks.

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GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) -- A new and often deadly virus which is sweeping the globe has infected thousands, with no apparent regard for race, gender or nationality. But one group has so far come through virtually untouched -- children.

Doctors are trying to explain why a virus that moves with relative ease through the adult population, so far infecting 3,000 worldwide with more than 100 dead, has come up against something of an immunological wall when it comes to youngsters.

In the south China city of Guangzhou, just miles from where the outbreak began, Guangzhou Children's Hospital has yet to see its first patient with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), officials said this week.

"We haven't had any cases of SARS," said Yu Minghua, chief of paediatrics at south China's largest hospital for children.

"No one has died and no one has been on a respirator...This hospital has about 300 doctors, and none of them has got SARS either."

China, especially southern Guangdong province where the disease emerged in November, has been criticized by the World Health Organization for not fully reporting the real number of SARS cases early enough.

But the resistance of children to SARS is a phenomenon that is seen in other places where the disease has struck hardest.

In Singapore, just three of the 126 cases to date, or 2.4 percent, are children under the age of 18, according to government data published on Thursday.

Out of about 1,000 sufferers in Hong Kong, "the number of children infected with SARS is low... and they had close contacts with SARS patients before infection," Hong Kong's Department of Health told Reuters in a statement. It said more specific data was not available.

A Chinese official could not say how many of the 1,206 people who have come down with the disease in Guangdong were children.

But Yu said that no children with SARS had come through her hospital, as one might suspect, before being transferred to Guangzhou's No 8 People's Hospital where many of the city's SARS sufferers have been quarantined.

Schools closed

Just two weeks ago, when first Singapore and then Hong Kong closed schools to prevent the disease's spread, less was known about who gets the disease.

The Hong Kong suspension of classes was later extended through the Easter holidays, while Singapore began a graduated reopening of its schools on Wednesday.

The latest research, published by two teams in the new England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, identifies the virus as a completely new version of the coronavirus family, the infection that causes the common cold, among other diseases.

To date, however, doctors have found no clear evidence that SARS is spread through children-to-children contact either in or outside schools, said C.K. Li, a paediatrician at Prince of Wales Hospital, where most of Hong Kong's first SARS cases came.

"Initially when I saw the first one or two cases (of children with SARS) I was in great worry that they would spread that disease within the schools," he said. "But that has never happened within Hong Kong."

Hong Kong's school officials must still decide whether to extend the suspension of classes beyond April 22, when they are set to reopen.

Deng Li, who heads the respiratory department at Guangzhou Children's Hospital, said it was not uncommon for children to get some respiratory diseases that adults don't get and vice versa, and that may be the case with SARS.

Hong Kong's C.K. Li said that children may, in fact, get SARS at proportionate rates to their share of the population, but that their cases may be less debilitating.

"We probably see quite a similar number of children who are affected as adults," he said. "But...it seems that young children are not so severely affected."



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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