Many more suspected SARS cases are likely to emerge because the symptoms match those of common winter diseases, the World Health Organization said on Friday as it investigated the latest case to surface in China.
A 20-year-old waitress in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, is suspected of having deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Her case surfaced days after China confirmed its first SARS infection since last year.
Health authorities have been worrying for months about the reappearance of SARS this winter. The disease has the same symptoms, including a relentless fever and dry cough, as several other respiratory diseases.
“Some of these diseases may also give rise to atypical pneumonia. It is likely that numerous other suspected (SARS) cases will be reported over the coming weeks,” the WHO said on its Web site.
The WHO has sent a team of four doctors to Guangzhou to investigate the disease, particularly its transmission. A spokesman said their investigation would be sweeping, with all possibilities considered.
“We’re on alert anyway,” team spokesman Roy Wadia told Reuters on Friday. “You get one case and you have to keep watching out for possible others.”
SARS first appeared in southern China in late 2002 and killed about 800 people worldwide last year, nearly 350 of them in China.
A Guangzhou health expert said he did not believe SARS would re-emerge on the scale of last year.
“I do not think the confirmed case means that SARS will return on a large scale,” Zhong Nanshan, head of the Guangzhou Respiratory Illness Research Institute, was quoted in the media as saying.
“To say it will trigger the huge spread of SARS is absurd.”
The China Daily newspaper said in an editorial the country had learned its lesson from last year, when it first covered up the extent of the disease. “Transparency breeds confidence,” it said.
Investors appeared to agree. China’s shares rose on Thursday and Friday, with analysts saying worries about SARS had not hurt trade, as it did last year.
The suspected case of the waitress follows confirmation of SARS in a 32-year-old Guangzhou TV producer, the country’s first case since the world outbreak was declared over in July. He has since recovered and left hospital on Thursday.
His case has been linked to a coronavirus very similar to one found in civet cats, a weasel-like animal prized as a delicacy in southern China and sold in crowded markets.
With the re-emergence of SARS, the government banned sale of the animals and has been carrying out a mass slaughter.
The TV producer said he had not eaten civet. The source of his infection remains a mystery, complicating the larger question whether the virus had begun to spread again.
The seafood restaurant where the waitress is believed to have worked was also famous for its civet cat, a neighbour said.
“Before SARS, they sold civet cats in the open and at night the cars would line up,” said a local seal-carver. “Then once SARS came, they stopped selling them. In recent months, they’ve been selling them under the table.”
Two members of a Hong Kong television crew tested negative for SARS following their return to Hong Kong on December 30 with fevers after they and a colleague visited an animal market and the hospital where the producer had been treated.
A Hong Kong government spokesman said test results on the third were pending.
The SARS scare is emerging just before the Lunar New Year holidays, when an estimated 1.89 billion journeys are expected to be made by rail, road, ship and air around China and in the region.
Dr Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said much work remained to identify the precise source of SARS.
“We may not ever be able to identify it,” Gerberding said.
“What we are seeing in China is a very vigilant health system that is doing exactly what it should be doing,” Gerberding said.
But French actress turned animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot protested against the civet cat slaughter.
“The eradication methods these animals are put through are unacceptable,” Bardot said in an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao. “No scientific research has yet identified which species is the first to have caught the virus.”