What Next? Killer Pneumonia

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As if the world — and the airline industry — didn't have enough to worry about, health officials on three continents last week were warning travelers to beware of a deadly, highly contagious form of pneumonia being rapidly carried around the world by passengers on jet planes. By Saturday night, at least nine people had died, one of them an American businessman traveling in Asia. The World Health Organization issued a rare emergency travel advisory after receiving reports of at least 150 cases. Meanwhile, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta were scrambling to identify the bug before it hit the U.S.

The disease triggers flulike symptoms — high fever, coughing, shortness of breath — but because it hasn't been responding to either antibiotics or antivirals, doctors can't immediately tell what causes it. For now they are calling it SARS — for Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome. Scientists speculate that it may be a bacterium or a virus that has mutated into a new, more virulent form.

So far, almost all the cases have been in Asia. One of the worst outbreaks, in Hanoi, apparently started after an American traveling through Vietnam fell ill and infected more than two dozen hospital workers; he died last Thursday in Hong Kong. No travel bans have been issued, but health officials are discouraging nonessential flights to Asia and urging travelers who suspect they have the illness to see a doctor and not fly again until they recover.