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Australia isolates two suspected SARS
( 2004-01-15 09:14) (Agencies)

Two people suspected of having the SARS virus were being treated in a Sydney hospital, health authorities said on Wednesday, the latest potential outbreak of a disease that wreaked havoc across the world last year.

NSW Minister for Health Morris Iemma said two flight attendants, who returned to Australia from China Tuesday, were in isolation at Sydney's St. Vincent's Hospital, the Australian Association Press (AAP) reported.

Chinese health officials have reported one confirmed case of SARS and two suspected cases in the southern province of Guangdong since SARS was declared under control last July.

But with no "superspreader" in sight, no one wearing masks and diagnoses of suspected SARS cases still in limbo, doctors questioned on Wednesday whether the bug that killed 800 people in 31 countries last year had lost its bite.

WHO experts, meanwhile, visited a live animal market in southern China on Wednesday, collecting samples of poultry feces in an effort to trace how SARS is being transmitted, something that is still puzzling researchers.

A leading SARS expert at the University of Hong Kong said the present strain of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was not a descendant of last year's virus, which infected 8,000 people across the world, and appeared less contagious.

"The virus this year is a new virus strain. It behaves like a virus in an animal and is not well adapted to humans, so its transmission ability is low," said microbiologist Guan Yi.

"That is why contacts of these victims (in China) have not been infected," said the expert.


The SARS scare was overshadowed this week as Asia faced a new health threat in bird flu, with WHO confirming that the disease had killed three people in Vietnam.

The suspected SARS cases, a waitress, 20, and an investor, 35, if confirmed, would be just the second and third cases on the Chinese mainland since the WHO declared an end to last year's outbreak in July.

They were on the mend without fever and none of the combined 128 people known to have come in contact with them had any symptoms.

The only confirmed patient so far, a 32-year-old television producer, returned home healthy last week.

The three patients were "nowhere near as sick as many of the patients were last year," said Robert Breiman, head of a WHO team probing SARS in Guangzhou.

"It's also possible that the SARS virus that is causing the infections, at least so far, is different somehow in its ability to transmit easily and also in its virulence, the level of severity of illness that it causes," he said.

But he stressed that it was too early to tell.

"Last year, among the thousands of cases of SARS, they included many, many people who didn't transmit and many, many people who had a reasonably mild disease. And so it may just be a mathematical thing."

He cautioned against letting one's guard down.

"It's possible that the same sorts of super spreading events that occurred last year could occur at some point this year."


In November 2002, a man in Foshan, 135 km (85 miles) from Hong Kong, began to spread his high fever and cough to doctors and nurses treating him.

It took four months before he was publicly identified as the world's first known SARS patient, by which time 34 people in China were dead and about 800 infected.

But of 81 people the Guangzhou television producer came in contact with, not one showed symptoms, the health ministry has said.

The chance of another big outbreak has altered few routines in Guangzhou or elsewhere in China so far, in stark contrast to a manic media chasing the prognosis of each new, or rumored, case.

Last May, SARS forced the government to curtail the week-long Labour Day holiday, and many travelers were cooped up at home.

But train tickets have been selling out fast ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, which falls on January 23. China's 1.3 billion people were to take an estimated 1.89 billion rail, bus or plane trips during the 40-day peak travel period that began on January 7.

And there was no sign that SARS jitters would stop them.

Hong Kong's Television Broadcasts (TVB) showed WHO experts going from stall to stall in a live animal market in Guangdong, collecting samples from chickens and ducks after taking swabs from civets previously

TVB quoted WHO spokesman Roy Wadia as saying the team was not looking at any connection to bird flu and there was no evidence linking poultry to SARS so far.

"These samples are to be compared across the markets and all sorts of animals," Wadia said.

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