CDC Readying for Possible New SARS Season

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A new surveillance system and improved tests are in place in case SARS (search) re-emerges in the United States this fall, federal health officials said.

Officials of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search), speaking Wednesday evening at a monthly meeting of researchers, said they don't know if SARS will reappear this fall or winter, but they believe the virus easily could return.

The surveillance system focuses on groups of pneumonia cases and would for the first time also monitor health care workers for pneumonia. The system and better testing methods are based on the experiences of CDC teams sent to other countries earlier this year to combat the SARS virus.

SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, was first recognized in the Guangdong Province in China in November. It spread to Hong Kong in February and eventually to more than 30 other countries. More than 8,400 people worldwide developed SARS and more than 800 died. None of the deaths was in the United States.

Though the disease subsided in June, health experts have said it could re-emerge as the weather turns colder.

CDC officials are making sure doctors, labs and hospitals are prepared to handle new cases. Health departments are expected to soon be asked to begin collecting blood and stool samples of potential SARS patients. The virus lives longer in such samples than in lung fluid samples collected during the spring outbreak, said Dean Erdman of the CDC.

Despite the improvements, much of the CDC's plan will remain the same as it was in the spring. The goal is to quickly detect any SARS activity in the United States and to prevent its spread.

The doctor remains the best frontline tool against SARS — and false diagnoses, said Dr. John Jernigan of the CDC's SARS investigative team.

Because influenza season (search) is nearing and early SARS and flu symptoms are similar, CDC officials say doctors attempting to make a diagnosis will again have to take into account whether patients had traveled recently to former SARS areas or had contact with someone who did.

"Physicians are going to have to be armed with the most current epidemiological information of where SARS is and use that," Jernigan said.