Health Officials Looking For SARS "Super-Spreader"

Girls wear masks during ballet lesson, Hong Kong
Girls wear masks during ballet lesson, Hong Kong

Web Producer: Brad Maglinger

Health officials are keeping a close watch for an event that could send the number of SARS cases in this country skyrocketing. The arrival of a super-infectious patient, a so-called super-spreader.

The CDC is reporting 254 SARS cases under investigation in the United States, 213 are suspected, 41 are probable. Most of the 41 probable SARS patients are people who've traveled to high risk areas. Only a few were infected with the disease on US soil. Compare that to Asia, or Canada where clusters of as many as 100 cases have been linked to one person. Scientists call those highly infectious people super-spreaders.

CDC director Julie Gerberding said, "One possibility is good luck, that we haven't had the right combination of someone who's highly infectious and inadequately protected health care personnel. So that's certainly one factor."

Scientists say there are many factors that can create super-spreaders, including a person's response to a virus, duration of the infection and the environment. They also say it's too early to pin down any definitive factors that distinguish SARS super-spreaders from other patients.

"So, there is nothing to suggest that an infected traveler could not come to this country and initiate a cascade of transmission. We have to remain vigilant and do everything we can to continue to detect cases at their earliest presentation," said Gerberding.

The development of a SARS test will help. But in the meantime, public health officials will continue to cast a broad net, in an effort prevent probable SARS cases along with potential super-spreaders from falling through the cracks.

Indiana's Eli Lilly may have a drug that could combat SARS. In the later stages of the illness, some patients exhibit symptoms of a blood infection or sepsis. Lilly's recently approved drug, xigris, stops inflammation, breaks down clots and improves blood flow in these patients. It's still too early to tell if it will do the same for SARS patients.