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Last Updated

08 Apr 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, April 8, 2003


Scientists Optimistic SARS in U.S. Can Be Contained

By Vicki Kemper, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The government's top scientists expressed cautious confidence Monday in their ability to control the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the United States, even as the number of SARS cases worldwide climbed above 2,600.

Joined via satellite by a top official of the World Health Organization, the scientists told a Senate committee that "extraordinary" cooperation among local, national and international health agencies has slowed the epidemic and boosted efforts to prevent and treat the disease.

"The world has responded as we hoped it would," the WHO's Dr. David L. Heymann said from Geneva. "We believe we will be able to contain the epidemic."

The rapid response to the disease results, at least in part, from the health agencies' efforts to prepare for smallpox and other possible bioterrorism attacks, the officials said.

"Two years ago, I don't think we could have done this," said Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Investments made in response to anthrax and bioterrorism have really paid off."

Yet the battle to contain SARS is far from over, the officials said.

"We're still in an evolving epidemic, so it is folly to predict where it's going to go," said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"We can be hopeful," added Gerberding, "but we need to be prepared for the worst."

A key to such preparation, Gerberding said, is preventing the disease's spread by limiting unnecessary travel to Asia and identifying cases quickly.

The chairman of the health and education committee, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), held up a blue and white surgical mask and asked about its role in SARS prevention. Gerberding replied that a far more effective tool is the yellow "health alert notice" airline passengers coming into the United States from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam are receiving.

Federal health agencies have distributed more than 300,000 of the notices, which tell passengers in six languages that their travel may have exposed them to SARS. The notice advises travelers to monitor their health for at least 10 days, watching for fever with a cough or difficulty in breathing, and to see a doctor if such symptoms develop.

The alert -- which Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) noted is not printed in Spanish -- also tells passengers who get sick to inform their doctors about their travels. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and other national health organizations have also instructed doctors to ask patients with such symptoms if they recently traveled to Asia.

"The most important step is identifying somebody who may have the condition," Gerberding said. The next step is to "immediately isolate" people who are infected so that the disease doesn't spread to health-care workers, family members and others, she said.

So far, just 148 suspected SARS cases have been identified in the United States, and most of them are relatively mild, Gerberding said. Only half the infected patients have developed pneumonia, and none has died.

Scientists at 11 laboratories around the world are collaborating on efforts to identify the new coronavirus that is widely suspected of causing the disease, which is believed to have spread from animals to humans in China's Guangdong province.

Officials hope identification of the virus genome, which they said could be completed within days, will help scientists develop tests and treatments for SARS. No effective drugs are available to combat the disease.

A preventive vaccine could be ready for testing in humans in a year or so, Fauci said.