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Concern Over Emergence of Viral Respiratory Infection in China


An outbreak of 59 cases of an as yet undiagnosed acute respiratory syndrome has affected patients in Wuhan, located in the Hubei Province of China.  Authorities have surprisingly demonstrated a greater level of transparency regarding the outbreak then they did with Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that emerged in 2003 and spread to 37 nations including Canada. There were more than 8,000 diagnosed cases of SARS with an approximately ten percent fatality rate over the period November 2002 through July 2003.  SARS and a similar condition, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) are caused by coronaviruses but have different animal reservoirs. 


Public health researchers in China have eliminated SARS and MERS in addition to avian influenza as the cause of the current outbreak. It is however suspected that the infection may be due to a newly emerged coronavirus. Fortunately, at this stage the infective agent does not appear to be transmissible among humans but in all probability is a zoonosis.  Many patients reported contact with a Wuhan market selling seafood and exotic mammals and reptiles that are consumed as food delicacies in China. 


It is considered essential that health authorities identify the causal agent and define the means of transmission.  January 25th marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year holiday period associated with travel involving at least 25 percent of the population in China.  Although, the agent responsible for the new respiratory syndrome is not apparently transmitted among humans, circulation of the virus in a dense population may result in a mutation that increases pathogenicity and infectivity.