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Words in the News
Monday 17 March 2003
Mystery illness
Doctors Health authorities all over the world have been warned about a mysterious form of pneumonia. It is believed that the illness may have killed around ten people in the last few weeks, but the cause of the disease is still unknown. This report from our science correspondent, Richard Black:
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The World Health Organisation does not issue global health alerts lightly, and its warning, issued at the weekend, that this mystery illness presents a worldwide threat, is being taken seriously by health authorities.

In terms of the number of people affected, the disease, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, isn't yet serious - a couple of hundred people ill, possibly ten dead. But what's worrying doctors and scientists is that the cause is still unknown.

Disease-causing organisms entirely new to science are rare, but they do occasionally turn up. In recent times both HIV and the prions which cause mad cow disease are examples. A much more likely explanation for SARS is that it's caused by a new form of a well-known organism, such as the influenza virus or one of the bacteria which commonly cause pneumonia.

Patients are now being treated with both anti-bacterial and anti-viral drugs, and some hospitals report that the treatment seems to be working. But paradoxically this may be hindering the search for a cause. If you give a patient ten different drugs, you can't tell which one is curing the infection.

Laboratories in Japan and the US continue to examine samples from the affected.

Richard Black, BBC

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global health alerts
emergency warnings about dangerous situations that might affect the health of people anywhere in the world
does not issue [...] lightly
if you do not issue something lightly, you publish it only after very careful thought
related to breathing a scientific word
very small living things
small protein molecules found in some animals including cows, which can, in some circumstances, cause disease
mad cow disease
informal, non-scientific name for a disease called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, which affects the brain of some cows
a kind of germ that can cause disease
very small organisms that can cause disease. Bacteria can exist in isolation, but viruses need a host body in order to live
anti-bacterial and anti-viral drugs
drugs that can be used to destroy bacteria and viruses
you describe a situation as paradoxical when it involves two facts and you would not expect it to be possible for both of them to be true
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