WHO confirms new Sars-like illness


THERE ARE concerns that the world may be facing an outbreak of a Sars-like illness following the identification of a new virus in two victims of severe respiratory disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed a new type of coronavirus has caused the death of a man in Saudia Arabia and the admission to intensive care in London of a man with acute respiratory syndrome and renal failure.

Coronaviruses cause the common cold, but were also the cause of a major outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) some nine years ago.

The 49-year-old being treated in London was admitted to an intensive care unit in Doha, Qatar, on September 7th. He was transferred to the UK by air ambulance on September 11th. It is believed that before he became ill he had travelled to Saudi Arabia.

Both men are understood to have had a fever, cough, shortness of breath and other respiratory symptoms.

“As we are aware of only two cases worldwide and there is no evidence of ongoing transmission, at present there is no specific action for the public or returning travellers to take. But we will share any further advice with the public as soon as more information becomes available,” Dr John Watson, head of respiratory diseases at the UK’s Health Protection Agency, said.

Coronaviruses typically spread from person to person when an infected person coughs or sneezes. They can survive outside the body for about 24 hours and are easily killed by detergents and cleaning agents.

Typically, these viruses cause mild upper respiratory tract symptoms. It is possible that the two identified cases of a new human coronavirus represent severe cases of an otherwise mild illness rather than the beginnings of a Sars-like epidemic.

The original coronavirus caused more than 8,300 cases of Sars between November 2002 and July 2003. Sars was first reported in the Guangdong province of China in November 2002. It spread to other countries in Asia, north America and Europe, with an especially severe outbreak in the Canadian province of Ontario.

Despite a number of medical alerts here, the Republic officially recorded just one case of the disease, in a man treated at Mayo General Hospital.

However, the Sars virus had a death rate of 3 to 4 per cent, three times the death rate of “regular” influenza. Death is by respiratory failure – the victims’ lungs are overwhelmed by pneumonia to the point where mechanical breathing assistance is required.

Commenting on the identification of the new virus, a WHO spokesman said: “WHO is currently in the process of obtaining further information to determine the public health implications of these two confirmed cases.”

– (Additional reporting Guardian service, PA)