Fri, Jul 30, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Despite illnesses and death, CDC can't name disease

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

A week after 24 students from the Military Academy in Kaohsiung County Fong Sheng City began suffering from a persistent fever, together with the sudden death of the student Yen Ming-cheng (顏銘政), the Department of Health's Center for Disease Control (CDC) is still struggling to identify the unknown disease.

The CDC is analyzing 24 nasopharyngeal swaps and blood tests in cooperation with the Medical Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of National Defense.

"Our initial finding from the specimens suggests that the student died of bacteremia induced by pseudomonas infection. Nonetheless, we cannot locate the source of infection until further tests in the lab yield more results," the CDC's deputy director-general, Shih Wen-yi (施文儀), announced in a press conference in Kaohsiung yesterday.

However, an autopsy of Yen's body to find the cause of death was canceled yesterday, as the family refused to grant the CDC its consent. Doctors said that an autopsy would now be very difficult, as Yen's body had remained in its coffin at home for 5 days in the hot and humid air.

The CDC said that the poorly preserved body would be unfit for an autopsy.

According to another CDC deputy director-general, Lin Ting (林頂), the patients' atypical syndromes and the wide spectrum of viruses and bacteria collected in samples has slowed the process of clinical identification.

"We cannot tell when we can be sure of the cause of group infection, since all kinds of tests are just under way," Lin said yesterday.

The latest report said that 5 out of the 24 patients still remain hospitalized and quarantined. According to Shih, the military school students experienced fever, cough, blocked sinuses and headaches, and are on the mend, despite the cause of the illness being unknown.

"Unlike Yen, these students displaying respiratory syndromes are not infected with pseudomonas. That's what we know so far," the CDC's former director-general, Su Ih-jen (蘇益仁), explained.

The rapid and potentially fatal infection has baffled health professionals. Since last weekend, the local hospital has successively identified several possible causes of the student's death and reported them to Kaohsiung County's Health Bureau. The possible causes include typhus, SARS, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, meningococcal meningitis, pneumonia and Legionnaires' disease, among others.

Despite the lack of a positive identification of the illness, officials were scrambling to reassure the public that everything was under control.

"Although we cannot pinpoint the cause of death, our doctors can ensure that this is not another SARS epidemic," said Yu Ming-long (余明隆), the secretary of medical affairs from the Kaohsiung Medical University Hospital where Yen was treated.

"So far, we can exclude the possibility of SARS, flu, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and meningitis. The probability of a communicable disease is very low," Chiu Chan-hsien (邱展賢), the chief of CDC's division of infectious diseases and prevention, said in a phone interview yesterday.

The military academy and the CDC said they are keeping a close watch on the 66 students suspected exposure to the unidentified disease.

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