I'm Sarah Long with Bob Doughty, and this is the VOA Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS.
This week -- a special report about the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the lung disease known as SARS.
In early February, an organism somehow crossed from mainland China to the busy island of Hong Kong. Silently it spread. Some people it spread to then traveled. They went to Hanoi, Singapore, Toronto and other places.
The people got sick. Some of them died. So did some of the people who had been around them.
Soon an international effort by scientists identified the cause. Yet the race to control this new disease is a striking story that continues to develop day by day.
Doctors describe SARS as an usual form of pneumonia. Pneumonia is a general term. It is used for many different kinds of lung infections.
SARS may cause several kinds of reactions. These include fever, diarrhea, a dry cough and difficulty breathing. It is caused by a newly discovered member of a family of viruses. Scientists discovered the cause faster than many thought possible.
As of last week, the number of cases had gone above four-thousand, with more than two-hundred-fifty deaths. However, most of the cases by far were in mainland China and Hong Kong. Third came Singapore with one-hundred-eighty-nine cases as of April twenty-third. Canada was next with one-hundred-forty.
There are diseases far more deadly, of course. Yet SARS has shown how quickly a viral infection can spread around the world, thanks to modern air transportation.
The World Health Organization has led the efforts to identify and control SARS. The W-H-O is part of the United Nations. The health agency has worked to find the starting points of the disease. It has also identified some people who seem to have an unusual ability to infect others. Such people have been called “supercarriers.”
Supercarrier is not a scientific term. But "index case" is. An index case is the first person linked to an outbreak of infection. Medical investigators look for such people in each area where a disease appears. The W-H-O has identified several index cases in the outbreak of SARS.
The outbreak started in Foshan City in Guangdong province on November sixteenth, two-thousand-two. The W-H-O and Chinese officials agree about that. At the time, no one knew what the sickness was. Chinese officials did not tell the W-H-O about the outbreak until February eleventh.
The Chinese reported that three-hundred-five people had become infected with SARS in Guangdong province. They also reported that one-hundred of those people were health care workers. The Chinese officials said five people died.
The W-H-O then looked at seven cases that had been reported in Hong Kong. Three of the people were from Singapore and two from Canada. Another was from mainland China and the seventh lived in Hong Kong. All seven had at least one thing in common. They had all stayed on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong in the second half of February.
Among them was Johnny Cheng, a Chinese-American businessman. Mister Cheng later traveled to Hanoi. He became sick and entered the French Hospital in the Vietnamese capital. He was so sick that the hospital decided to send him for treatment back in Hong Kong, where Mister Cheng died.
The first doctor to recognize SARS was Carlo Urbani, an Italian based in Hanoi for the World Health Organization. Doctor Urbani had treated patients for an unusual form of pneumonia. One of the patients was Johnny Cheng. The businessman arrived at the French Hospital on February twenty-sixth. Within a short time, seven people who had cared for him also became sick.
By March tenth, twenty-two workers in the French Hospital had SARS. On March twelfth, the W-H-O gave a worldwide warning about this unusual form of pneumonia. The outbreak had officially been recognized.
Later, Carlo Urbani himself developed SARS. One month after he told the world about the disease, Doctor Urbani died at a hospital in Thailand. He was forty-six years old.
On March twenty-third, a team from the W-H-O arrived in Beijing to discuss the situation with Chinese officials. At this point there were strong theories about the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome, but no confirmation. The next day brought news of a major development at the top public health laboratory in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, announced that SARS was caused by a new kind of coronavirus. Some members of the coronavirus family are among the many viruses that cause the common cold.
Finding the cause of SARS was only the first task for eleven top laboratories around the world. Now scientists could begin work on a test to show if people are infected with the virus.
By the beginning of April, it was clear that China had more cases of SARS than the world knew.
On April second, the W-H-O announced that it would send a team immediately to Guangdong province, where SARS first appeared. On the same day, the organization warned that people should consider not traveling to Hong Kong or Guangdong. This was the first time the W-H-O had given a travel warning about a disease. Normally governments give such warnings.
The World Health Organization has extended its travel advice. Last week the W-H-O urged people to postpone travel to Beijing and Shanxi Province in China and to Toronto, Canada.
Also last week, Chinese leaders dismissed the country's health minister and the mayor of Beijing. The government was under increasing international pressure to tell more about the SARS outbreak. For example, information about patients at military hospitals had not been shared with the W-H-O.
Health officials admitted that SARS had spread to several provinces. They said China had more than one-thousand cases not reported before.
Chinese officials have closed schools in Beijing for at least two weeks, until May seventh or later, as part of the containment effort.
The race to identify the genes of the coronavirus that causes SARS went extremely fast. Canadian researchers had the new virus mapped by early April. On April fourteenth, the American Centers for Disease Control said its team had found some genetic markers not found by the Canadians.
At about the same time, the Bernhard-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, told the W-H-O that it had developed important parts for a SARS test. A German company would make the test itself. But the institute said it would offer the test to laboratories that cooperate with the W-H-O.
Chinese scientists have done their own studies of the coronavirus genes. The scientists examined the virus in the blood of patients from the Guangdong and Beijing areas. They found the virus already changing -- viruses change to survive. But the scientists in China said more tests were needed to learn if it was getting more dangerous or less dangerous.
Scientists have also been working to identify the ways that SARS is spread. They believe one major way is through fluids expelled from the nose and mouth when a person sneezes or coughs. American officials say the virus may even be spread by touching objects that have infectious material on them, and then touching your face.
In Hong Kong, officials said leaking waste pipes may have helped spread the virus through an apartment building where three-hundred people got infected.
Health officials say people who have been with family members or others who have traveled to infected areas should watch for signs of infection. These include a body temperature higher than thirty-eight degrees Celsius, pain or difficulty breathing.
Scientists now know what it was that crossed from mainland China into Hong Kong sometime in February. But they also know that viral infections are much more difficult to treat than those caused by bacteria.
Like any mystery, there is more to learn about SARS. However, health officials point out the good news so far. That is, most people who develop this new disease get better in about a week.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written and produced by Mario Ritter. This is Bob Doughty.
And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.