Experts track source of illness

BEIJING: Medical detectives targeted drains and sewers as they scoured a residential block, a drug store and a private home in southern China, searching for where a sickened man's illness – which may or may not be SARS – was contracted. 

The possible infection remained “a suspected case only”, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday, and the World Health Organisation concurred. The male patient, still hospitalised, was reportedly improving. 

“A question mark continues to hang over the suspected SARS case in southern China, but more tests are planned in an effort to reach a definite conclusion,” WHO said in a statement. 

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was declared under control by the government in July after nearly five months of problems that claimed 774 lives around the globe. 

The latest patient, an unidentified 32-year-old television producer, is the suspected SARS case to be publicly reported in southern China since then. He has been hospitalised since Dec 20 in Guangdong, and his condition is reported as stable. 

Repeated tests this week have proven inconclusive, authorities say. On Wednesday, medical investigators from WHO and the government were mulling where to send samples abroad for further examination to confirm or refute the presence of SARS. 

The investigation team in Guangdong's provincial capital, Guangzhou, visited a residential block in the city's Panyu district on Wednesday – the complex where the patient had been living, Xinhua said. 

The experts visited the man's home and a nearby drugstore where, Xinhua said, “the patient bought medicine before he went to hospital and had close contact with the staff.'' Several pharmacy workers have been isolated because they came into contact with the man, Xinhua said. 

It said the residential complex's drains, sewers and disinfection procedures were “the key target'' of the searches on Wednesday. The team has also visited the suspected SARS patient in Guangzhou No. 8 People's Hospital. 

The patient's temperature has been normal for a week, and inflammation in his lower right lung has “diminished drastically'' since late last week, Xinhua said. 

“Tests so far are inconclusive for SARS and a range of other infectious diseases,'' said Dr Julie Hall, SARS team leader for WHO's office here. She said antibody tests indicated “a likely viral infection, but not necessarily ... an acute SARS infection.'' 

Zhong Nanshan, director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases, was quoted by the government as saying his organisation wanted to be “extremely cautious'' about its conclusions. A positive SARS diagnosis would have significant economic and public-relations effects on the entire nation. – AP  

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