HONG KONG – Their stories might be the most heartbreaking to have emerged from Hong Kong's SARS crisis -- three babies delivered prematurely to mothers infected by the disease.
And the babies themselves may be infected.
Doctors performed the Caesarean-section (search) births because the expectant mothers were getting sicker, and there were fears the fetuses could be deformed if the women received a cocktail treatment of antiviral drugs and steroids being given to SARS (search) patients here.
Two of the mothers died within days of giving birth, both at age 34. The surviving mother was listed as stable on Thursday, said Dr. Liu Shao-haei, senior executive manager of the Hospital Authority.
The babies are all in intensive care.
Two were on ventilators Thursday but stable, said a pediatrician who has been following those two cases, Dr. Hon Kam-lun. Hon had no information on the third baby's condition.
Although the babies all have tested negative for SARS, they are acting in some ways like SARS patients, for example with difficulty breathing, doctors have said. Since the diagnosis for SARS is not 100 percent reliable, the doctors are closely monitoring them under the premise they could well have it.
Their outlook remains uncertain.
"They might be the only cases in the world, so it's very difficult to tell," said Dr. Lo Wing-lok, an infectious disease expert and president of the Hong Kong Medical Association.
"It's of course a big concern," said Lo, who also serves as a lawmaker representing Hong Kong's health-care industry. "If pregnant women get the infection, it's not only the woman -- if the baby is old enough to be viable, it has to be delivered."
The babies have experienced difficulty breathing, which can be a symptom of SARS. Lo said it's also possible they are suffering from respiratory disease syndrome, which occurs in preemies, and the uncertainty leaves experts in a quandary.
"We have been monitoring their cases with great suspicion, and treating them as if they might have been infected," Liu said earlier.
Little information has been made available about the babies. It has not been confirmed how premature they were and no identities have been made public. A newspaper reported that one of the fathers, the husband of the first mother to die, had recently recovered from SARS.
The disease has infected more than 4,000 people globally and killed more than 250, but it is unclear whether pregnant SARS victims elsewhere have had to give birth as they were dying or deteriorating.
A World Health Organization (search) spokesman, Peter Cordingley, said Thursday from the agency's regional headquarters in Manila he was not immediately aware of other such cases being tracked.
Liu said the Hong Kong babies' lungs and other organs were being monitored daily for SARS symptoms or other problems.
Doctors have held out the possibility that the babies could get the same SARS treatment as adults -- a combination of the antiviral drug ribavirin and steroids. But Liu has said that won't happen unless they are confirmed to have the disease.
Hong Kong Health Director Dr. Margaret Chan noted that doctors caring for the babies are hindered by a lack of case histories, since no one has yet dealt with infants sickened by a new disease that is still so poorly understood.