Tue, Dec 30, 2003 - Page 5 News List

SARS case proving hard to verify

DIFFICULT DIAGNOSIS With several tests on the suspected SARS case coming up negative, a WHO expert has arrived in China to try to confirm what the disease is

REUTERS , BEIJING

A World Health Organization (WHO) expert arrived in Beijing yesterday to help China find out whether the country's first suspected SARS patient in half a year has the killer virus.

Another joint team of WHO and health ministry experts was to head to the southern province of Guangdong to aid testing on the 32-year-old television producer, whose temperature was normal and who appeared to be doing well, Beijing-based WHO spokesman Roy Wadia said.

But a Ministry of Health official said it would take "several days" to arrive at a diagnosis.

None of the 42 people quarantined for having been in contact with the patient has developed a fever or shown other symptoms of the deadly virus, officials said.

"Up till now, we haven't found any new suspected SARS patients, including those who had close contact with the suspected SARS patient," one Guangdong health official said.

SARS emerged in Guangdong late last year before it was spread by travellers to nearly 30 countries where some 8,000 infections were logged, spurring mass panic and forcing people to cancel trips and stay away from crowded spots.

Chinese shares inched lower yesterday morning as the SARS scare prompted selling in airline and tourism stocks.

If confirmed, the Guangdong case would be the first not linked to laboratory accidents since the WHO declared the outbreak over in July. Two recent cases in Singapore and Taiwan were linked to accidents in medical research laboratories.

The Singapore patient has recovered and been discharged and the Taiwan patient is expected to be released soon.

News of China's suspected SARS case comes just over three weeks before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday when millions of people in China and across East and Southeast Asia travel to visit relatives.

Singapore has tightened health checks on travellers from southern China. Passengers stepping off planes from Guangzhou have their temperature checked by thermal image scanners before entering the island-state's airport.

"All arriving passengers are screened for their temperature at the arrival hall, but passengers from Guangzhou have their temperature checked at the aerobridge," said Albert Tjoeng, a spokesman at the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.

Despite a battery of tests, Chinese doctors and laboratory workers have yet to make a final diagnosis on the man, who was first diagnosed with pneumonia in his right lower lung on Dec. 16.

"The tests have been so confusing," said Wadia. "There's been some positives, some negatives and the positives come from a sort of test group that has a high number of false positives.

"That's why it's important that we get the samples tested independently as well, because the more testing that is done by different sources, the less the statistical margin of error."

But it was not yet clear when the WHO specialist would travel to Guangdong, Wadia said. The expert had been invited by the Chinese government to sift through data collected so far on the suspected patient and observe ongoing testing.

The official Xinhua News Agency said life in the provincial capital Guangzhou, where the suspected SARS patient had been hospitalized, was normal.

In Beijing, where traffic-choked streets appeared eerily deserted for several weeks in spring, the going was slow during a typical Monday morning rush hour. No one was seen wearing protective masks, de rigeur when the SARS spread was at its peak.

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