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First 'probable' case of SARS reported in Minnesota
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State Epidemiologist Harry Hull says "this first probable case does not mean that Minnesotans in general now have an increased risk of getting SARS." (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
The Minnesota Department of Health has identified its first probable case of SARS, an illness that's killed more than 260 people and infected more than 4,300 worldwide. SARS, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome, first surfaced in south China last November. State health officials say a 2-year-old Ramsey County boy may have acquired the illness while visiting the Toronto area.

St. Paul, Minn. — SARS has alarmed health officials throughout the world because it's a new virus, not just a virus that scientists have only recently identified. Little is known about the illness, there is no reliable diagnostic test to confirm it, and there's no vaccine to prevent it. So officials such as State Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernoch says authorities are erring on the side of caution.

"We're taking this illness very seriously. We've been in contact with the governor's office. But the people of Minnesota need to know that we're working very hard to identify and respond to any potential threat of SARS that may pose an issue for the people of the state," says Mandernoch.

Authorities say the 2-year-old boy, who had a pre-existing respiratory problem, was hospitalized for two days, released and will be isolated at home for 10 days.

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Image Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernoch

The child reportedly came in contact with 19 health care workers, and they have been notified.

Because the virus is so new, the criteria for diagnosing it is evolving. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control identifies SARS with pneumonia or respiratory distress, a fever higher than 100.5, and a history of travelling to the far east or Toronto.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Harry Hull says unfortunately, tests for definitively diagnosing SARS are unreliable. He says of the two available tests, one may identify SARS in its early stages.

"It's great if it's positive. If it's negative it doesn't mean that the patient doesn't have SARS," Hull says. "The other test is an antibody test that's useful three or four weeks after the illness starts, so we can look back and say who did or did not have SARS. so there's uncertainty here."

Officials would not disclose publicly the clinic and hospital where the boy was treated, because they said doing so would cause unnecessary alarm. Most of those who have contacted the illness are health care workers and people who live with SARS patients.

Dr. Phillip Peterson, the head of Infectious Disease and International Medicine at the University of Minnesota says it's important to put SARS into context.

"In terms of relative importance and risk, there's no comparison. Influenza is much more important," he says.

Peterson says the number of people who die from influenza in the United States each year is 100 times the number of SARS deaths that have occurred worldwide. Since there is a vaccine for influenza, Peterson predicts a future vaccine for SARS.

"There will be a lot of interest potentially in developing a vaccine for this virus, especially if it turns out to continue to spread throughout the world. But whether it will ever come close to influenza, is highly unlikely," says Peterson.

Minnesota health officials say the main reason they're identifying the boy as a probable SARS case is his recent visit to the Toronto area. The World Health Organization has urged travelers to avoid Toronto because SARS is linked to the deaths of 18 people there, and at least another 300 who are probably infected.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien criticized the World Health Organization Friday for urging travelers to avoid Toronto because of SARS. He said his federal cabinet would meet next week in Canada's largest city to show the world that it's safe.

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