updated 10/17/2003 5:51:28 PM ET 2003-10-17T21:51:28

Fear over the possible return of SARS is so great in the United States that even if the virus does not appear, it will probably cause disruptions in hospitals this winter, top U.S. health officials say.

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CDC and other health officials say emergency rooms could be swamped with suspected cases of the disease.

“Whether the virus comes back this winter or not, we will be dealing with SARS,” said Dr. James Hughes, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “When people start showing up with respiratory diseases, physicians will be thinking of SARS.”

Health officials are worried that doctors with limited SARS experience could easily confuse early SARS symptoms with the flu. To clarify matters, the CDC is working on a plan for doctors and hospitals to prevent outbreaks.

Hospital officials will be on the lookout for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome cases this winter because of the seasonal nature of such viruses.

SARS emerged in China last November, but it was not until the spring when researchers identified SARS as a new kind of virus. Through July, when the virus’ activity subsided, SARS had affected nearly 8,100 people, killing 774 worldwide. There were 74 probable U.S. cases and no deaths.

“I can tell you we’re more prepared than before,” Hughes said. “I think the global community can handle SARS if it’s handled appropriately. I think enough lessons have been learned” in the previous outbreak.

Research on a vaccine and antiviral treatments is under way, but it could be years before any new drugs reach the market. And health officials say the lack of a rapid diagnostic test is a key obstacle in the campaign against the virus.

Last week, the agency warned doctors not to offer patients flu shots purely in hopes of reducing the number of people with SARS-like symptoms. The CDC said people who have received flu shots can still get the flu.

Meanwhile, the mosquito-borne West Nile virus is making such a quick, westward spread that it will soon put “everybody at risk,” said Dr. Lyle Petersen, acting director of the CDC division of vector-borne diseases.

“Within a couple of years, every county in the United States is going to have West Nile endemic in it,” Petersen said.

That means people will have to continually take precautions against mosquitos such as using insect repellent or wearing long sleeves. Mosquito-control programs will also be a part of life, officials said.

West Nile virus is transmitted by mosquitoes that have fed on infected birds. This year, the virus has hit Western Plains states particularly hard.

The virus was first detected in the United States in 1999, in the New York City area, and has spread across much of country since then. Nationwide, the CDC has recorded 6,411 cases of the virus this year and at least 134 deaths.

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