The World Health Organization issued a rare emergency advisory yesterday, cautioning travelers and airline employees to be on the alert for a severe form of pneumonia that has killed at least nine people and hospitalized hundreds of others, particularly in the Far East.
The advisory did not call for a halt in travel, but it warned travelers to be alert for the symptoms of the disease and to seek treatment immediately if such symptoms become apparent.
"We want people to be aware that if they have symptoms, they should go to a doctor and consider not traveling," said WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab.
The health group said it has detected 150 new cases of the disease - which it is calling severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS - in the past week and expressed alarm at the speed with which it is spreading into new areas.
Two deaths and several cases of SARS were reported in Canada last week, and yesterday, a Singaporean physician traveling from New York City was hospitalized in an isolation unit in Frankfurt, Germany, after falling ill on his flight. Some other people on the flight were quarantined in Germany.
Late yesterday, it was reported that another traveler, returning from Asia, had fallen ill aboard a flight from Atlanta to Canada.
"SARS is now a worldwide health threat," Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the health organization's director general, said in a statement. "The world needs to work together to find its cause, cure the sick and stop the spread."
Officials stressed that there is no evidence the outbreak is linked to terrorism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated its emergency operations center Friday and began briefing state health officials yesterday
"The emergence of two clusters of this illness on the North American continent indicates the potential for travelers who have been in the affected areas of Southeast Asia to have been exposed to this serious syndrome," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC. "Therefore, we are instituting measures aimed at identifying potential cases among travelers returning to the United States and protecting people with whom they may have come in contact."
The WHO and the CDC have sent teams of infectious-disease experts and other physicians to Southeast Asia to help identify the cause of the outbreak and control the spread of the illness. The agencies are sending masks, gowns, gloves, goggles and other equipment to medical facilities to help break the transmission chain.
"We are doing everything humanly possible" to help halt the epidemic, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday.
More than half of the reported cases have involved hospital workers. Three-quarters of the estimated 40 cases in Vietnam are in the Hanoi French Hospital, where a 48-year-old American businessman was treated after arriving in the city from Hong Kong. The American was sent back to Hong Kong and died Thursday.
SARS is an example of what authorities call an atypical pneumonia, a severe form that begins with fever, fatigue, shortness of breath and cough. So-called typical pneumonia usually causes only severe coughing and a fever.
Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.