Sars outbreak in southern Germany seen as ‘epidemic’

Image copyright Alexander Neudert / Medecins Sans Frontieres Image caption Most of the deaths are caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

The severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in southern Germany is thought to be an “epidemic”, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.

Germany is struggling to cope with the new virus, which has led to more than 80 cases of infection and almost all fatalities.

Sars erupted in China in 2002, causing more than 800 deaths, mostly in Asia.

It brought global travel to a standstill as people fled their homes.

The original Sars outbreak struck Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, with at least 467 confirmed cases and more than 770 deaths.

A WHO spokesman said: “The WHO considers the situation to be an epidemic, which requires strong international coordination between public health authorities and between the WHO, national and international agencies as well as the media.”

The virus caused an environmental panic at airports in Asia, with thousands of passengers having to spend a night in terminal buildings before being able to continue their journey.

Rafael Cortes, a surgeon who was working in the Chinese capital Beijing at the time, said most of the passengers made their way back home for their belongings, including burning their hotel rooms.

Mr Cortes said that the frantic behaviour of passengers quickly created a potential environmental health hazard.

Sars was eventually traced to a man called Dr Qiangjun Chen, who had been working in Guangzhou.

He died two weeks after the outbreak began, days before Chinese authorities identified him as the cause.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Sars spread worldwide by the droplets of contaminated vomit and blood

After returning to hospital, Chinese authorities discovered his pet bird had been infected and this caught the virus.

Mr Chen’s wife and daughter also died after being exposed to his infected cabin air in the Beijing-Guangzhou flight.

According to the WHO, the disease is known to be an opportunistic infection, meaning people can be infected even when their blood is tested negative for the virus.

Sars also infects the mucous membranes, organs and blood in parts of the body not usually considered to be a respiratory route.

Treatment for Sars remains complex, as limited sample studies mean “resistance to conventional therapies may be developing”, the WHO said.

Image copyright Alexander Neudert / Medecins Sans Frontieres Image caption The infection caused havoc on public transport in the UK and Europe

As it is a cousin of the seasonal flu virus, it is a possibility that this pandemic “may have the potential to continue for many years to come”, the WHO said.

German authorities say that the most virulent strain known to man, “Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus”, has been identified in 17 cases.

Of those 17 cases, all but two are in Germany. Ten are said to be fatal.

A 27-year-old German woman – named only as Anne – died last week after catching the virus on a family trip to Saudi Arabia, apparently from a family member.

MERS has previously been linked to outbreaks of the “greater than 3m” coronavirus strain (GMRG), which is classified as “category 2” virus.

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