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Experts: SARS comeback likely next winter

From Brad Wright

CDC chief Dr. Julie Gerberding was among those who testifed to Congress about the future of SARS.
CDC chief Dr. Julie Gerberding was among those who testifed to Congress about the future of SARS.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Some of the nation's top experts in infectious diseases told Congress on Wednesday that severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, could make a big comeback this winter, despite the apparent decline in new cases.

"I am convinced with the advent of an early winter in the Northern Hemisphere in just six short months, we will see a resurgence of SARS that could far exceed our experience to date," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Minnesota.

"If this projection is correct, we have every reason to believe that this disease may show up in multiple U.S. cities as we continue to travel around the world in unprecedented numbers and speed," Osterholm said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, agreed.

"There is the possibility, if not likelihood, that we would not yet be finished with this, even with the cases no longer spread in this season or at this particular time," he said. "So we must be prepared for serious consequences in future years."

The World Health Organization reports more than 7,900 SARS cases worldwide and 663 deaths. In the United States, there are 67 probable cases with no deaths reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress recently appropriated some $16 million to help the CDC respond to the SARS outbreak.

Conditions in the developing world -- where many people live close to their livestock -- can be breeding grounds for respiratory diseases which are then spread by international travelers, Osterholm said.

The outbreak is believed to have originated in mainland China late last year and was spread by travelers to Hong Kong and Vietnam before reaching Toronto, Canada, and the United States.

Quick identification of the illness and measures such as quarantines have helped greatly in curtailing spread of the disease in Vietnam and the West, said CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding.

And in mainland China -- where most of the cases have been reported -- the daily tally of new cases has been on a downward trend for more than 10 days.

Although researchers have mapped the genome of the coronavirus believed to cause SARS, there is still much that is not known about the disease.

"We know that individuals with SARS can be very infectious during the symptomatic phase of the illness," Gerberding said. "However, we do not know how long the period of [being contagious] lasts once they recover from the illness, and we do not know whether or not they can spread the virus before they experience symptoms."

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