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Respiratory Disease Outbreak Puzzles World Health Officials

By Rob Stein

Health authorities in North America, Asia and Europe Monday investigated possible new cases of a baffling, sometimes fatal respiratory disease that nations around the world are racing to contain.

The United States, Sweden, England, Germany, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Vietnam sought details about reports of more people suffering from pneumonia-like symptoms similar to those that have struck nearly 500 people worldwide, mostly in Asia, and killed at least nine, according to the World Health Organization. Possible cases were also reportedly under investigation in France, Israel and Slovenia among people who had recently traveled to Asia.

In the United States, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta was investigating 14 reports of people with similar symptoms, though officials said they are fairly certain that at least 10 of those cases are unrelated.

“It will not be surprising to us if we see cases in the United States,” CDC Director Julie Gerberding said. “The current emerging threat is a wake-up call: We really do live in a global village. An emerging problem in one part of the world will soon be a problem to all of us.”

Gerberding withheld all details about the possible cases.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he briefed the White House Monday on the status of the outbreaks, while the CDC held a series of teleconferences with doctors’ groups and state and local health officials to keep them abreast of developments and advise them on how to respond.

“The current outbreak of this infectious disease is of concern to everybody,” Thompson said. “With the current ease of travel, there is a possibility of cases appearing in the United States.”

David Heymann, head of communicable diseases for the WHO, said he is optimistic that the epidemic is being kept in check.

“I think we’re containing it. I think we’re finding the cases before they can cause serious outbreaks,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to spread rapidly.”

Passengers at airports in Asia were being screened for flu-like symptoms, while in the United States officials were handing out cards to passengers coming off flights from Asia instructing them to watch out for symptoms.

As officials worked to identify cases and prevent infections, scientists intensified testing to try to identify the virus or other infectious microbe that was causing the illness, dubbed SARS, for severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The WHO announced Monday that it had established a “virtual laboratory” based in Geneva to coordinate the testing of blood and tissue samples at 11 laboratories in at least nine countries -- the United States, France, China, Hong Kong, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and Japan.