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Behind new killer disease in Asia

By David Whitehouse | April 11, 2003 | Page 2

A FRIGHTENING new epidemic has broken out in Asia while the U.S. media's attention was focused on the war on Iraq. SARS--or severe acute respiratory syndrome--is an aggressive new strain of pneumonia. It first appeared last year in southern China and has infected at least 2,500 people worldwide and killed 90.

Most of the cases are centered in China's Guangdong province--and in Hong Kong, which lies just off China's southern coast. Hong Kong residents are up in arms because of the Chinese government's blackout of news about the disease. China tried to protect its international reputation by concealing the outbreak for nearly five months--just as it covered up the extent of HIV infections until very recently.

Although Chinese officials tracked the growth of the epidemic since last November, they didn't allow investigators from the World Health Organization to visit the epicenter of the crisis until last week.

SARS is most likely a new strain of coronavirus, a group of germs that includes the common cold. It causes flu-like symptoms of high fever, aches and dry cough, sometimes leading to difficulty in breathing. In 4 to 5 percent of cases, the patient dies.

There is no vaccine for any coronavirus, in part because they mutate rapidly. But investigators in England say they may be days away from a diagnostic test for SARS, which could help stem the spread of the disease without mass quarantines.

A rational society would devote every available resource to fighting this epidemic before it spreads any further. But the world's richest government today is too busy destroying one of the world's poorest countries in an insane war.

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