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Flu-like Outbreak Stirs SARS Fears In Canada

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An outbreak of flu-like illness in a suburban Vancouver nursing home has provoked concern that SARS is making a comeback, but Canadian officials Wednesday rejected that possibility.

Preliminary research suggests that the illness may be caused by a newly recognized but less virulent member of the SARS coronavirus family, says Perry Kendall, British Columbia's provincial health officer. ''We're sure it's not SARS,'' Kendall says, noting that the new virus doesn't cause the high fever and lung inflammation typical of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

SARS exploded out of Asia this year and caused epidemics in Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Toronto and other cities. In Toronto, the epicenter of the biggest SARS outbreak in North America, the disease afflicted 250 people and killed 44. Worldwide, health officials reported 8,422 cases and 916 deaths.

The mysterious new outbreak began in mid-July. Since then, 94 of 141 residents in the Kinsmen Place Nursing Home in Surrey, British Columbia, developed respiratory illness, along with 46 of 160 staffers. Ten of the residents died, six of them from pneumonia.

Four of the residents died of diseases typical of the elderly. And the six patients who died of pneumonia had ordinary pneumonia, not the inflamed lungs seen in SARS patients.

Health officials sounded the alarm when genetic tests detected traces of the SARS virus or a related microbe in three of the six patients, says Don Bower of the Fraser Health Authority, Surrey's local public health agency.

Kendall says further tests produced a match with two identical genes taken from the Toronto SARS virus, but he added that ''that's just two of several hundred genes in the SARS virus genome.''

Researchers have begun decoding the new virus's genome so it can be compared fully with the version that causes SARS to get a definitive answer, he said.

Further muddying the picture: A genetic comparison with other viruses yielded a match with a gene found in a microbe from the same coronavirus family, but one that doesn't cause SARS. Coronaviruses are abundant; some strains cause the common cold.

''A match on two genes means it could be the same virus, a related virus, or a mutated virus. We can't be any more clear than that. There's some relationship with the SARS coronavirus, but that's as far as we can go,'' Kendall says.

A similar illness was diagnosed in 11 of 101 residents and some staffers at another Vancouver-area nursing home, but tests ruled out coronaviruses as the culprit.

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