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Officials Target Cause of 'Mystery' Disease

An outbreak of a new type of pneumonia known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, is on its way to containment, at least outside of Asia, according to the World Health Organization. Meanwhile, scientists have found evidence that a virus is possibly the cause of the disease. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports.

Microbiologists in Hong Kong and Germany used powerful electron microscopes to hunt for unusual organisms in samples from SARS patients. The researchers say a virus similar in shape to viruses that cause measles and mumps may be the cause. It's known as a paramyxovirus. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta caution more work needs to be done to determine if the virus is responsible.

So far, the World Health Organization has identified more than 260 suspected SARS cases, and nine people have died. Symptoms of the disease include a sudden high fever, a dry cough and difficulty breathing. Most of those infected live in Southeast Asia, have recently traveled there or live with someone who recently traveled there.

The World Health Organization's Dr. David Heyman says the global alert sent out nearly a week ago has worked remarkably well to help contain the outbreak. He says new cases continue to surface, but country health officials are isolating them properly and staving off further transmission.

In the United States, federal officials have identified 11 possible cases of SARS. Labs at the CDC are analyzing specimens.

Although there are no definitive answers about the disease yet, health officials worldwide agree: SARS is likely a naturally occurring outbreak not an intentional bio-terrorist act.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.