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Health officials: SARS could come back

A young girl wears a surgical mask as she sits in a bus in Hong Kong on September 16.
A young girl wears a surgical mask as she sits in a bus in Hong Kong on September 16.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Federal health officials Friday said it's possible that SARS could break out again. The respiratory illness was first identified in February in China and infected more than 8,000 people in about two dozen countries before it seemed to vanish.

"As an infectious disease expert, I've never seen a pathogen emerge and go away on its own," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "We have to expect that sometime, somewhere, this virus is going to rear its ugly head again."

Gerberding, in a news conference with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson at CDC headquarters, said "it's a good bet" that if Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome re-emerges it will be in Asia.

Thompson, on his sixth visit to the disease center since he took the helm of HHS less than three years ago, said the disease could recur seasonally, much like flu. "We have no proof that it's going to, but the possibility is there," he said.

Unlike flu, SARS has no known treatment. The National Institutes of Health is working on a vaccine, but none will be ready this year, he said.

More than 1,000 antiviral compounds have been screened for possible effectiveness against the coronavirus that causes SARS. "Some have shown quite a bit of progress so far," he said.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration is working to develop diagnostic tools and treatments, he said.

The disease agency, which had no coronavirus experts on staff before March 15, now has several dozen, Gerberding said.

Even if SARS does not return, the preparations will still prove useful, predicted Gerberding, who has grappled with outbreaks of monkeypox and anthrax, and led the effort to inoculate emergency responders against smallpox in the last two years.

"We're living in the age of the new normal of emerging health threats," she said. "If it's not SARS, it will be something else."

Over the course of the outbreak, the World Health Organization in Geneva identified 8,422 cases, 916 of them fatal. As of the end of July, the United States had tallied 192 cases, 33 of them deemed "probable."

Symptoms can include a high fever, chills, headache, general feeling of discomfort and body aches.

Patients may develop a dry cough and pneumonia.

SARS spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. But no new cases were being reported by late July, when W.H.O. declared the outbreak over.

CDC said earlier this month that a 27-year-old man in Singapore was infected with SARS. He is not sick, and none of his contacts has been reported ill.

Separately, W.H.O. on Friday said inadequate plumbing appears to have contributed to the spread of SARS in residential buildings in Hong Kong.

W.H.O. blamed droplets from sewage for the spread of other infectious diseases in other countries, too.

"In the absence of proper maintenance and without consistent monitoring, reviewing, enforcing and updating of building standards and practices, inadequate plumbing and sewage systems could continue to enhance the potential of SARS and some other diseases to spread," consultants hired by the agency said.

"With this consultation, W.H.O. is helping its member states appreciate the need to assess and manage the health risks associated with inadequate plumbing and sewage systems," said Dr. Jamie Bartram, head of the agency's Water, Sanitation and Health Program.


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