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SARS deaths mount
People wear surgical masks to protect themselves against the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in a downtown Hong Kong on Monday. Hong Kong has had 883 cases of SARS, with 23 deaths, including a 78-year-old woman who became the latest fatality Sunday. Officials say 127 have recovered and been discharged.
VINCENT YU/Associated Press

Illness shows signs of leveling off

WASHINGTON - The number of people infected by the mysterious flu-like illness dubbed SARS is beginning to stabilize, a top Bush administration official said Monday, even as other health officials cautioned that the international epidemic could continue to spread.

The numbers continue to creep up for severe acute respiratory syndrome. Worldwide, more than 2,300 people have been sickened, and the death toll hit 100 Monday. There are now about 150 U.S. cases in 30 states with no deaths.

"I think we've started to stabilize in the number of cases. We're not seeing these large jumps every day," said Jerry Hauer, acting assistant secretary for public health preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services. "We're hoping that this lack of a rapid growth is a true indicator that maybe it's slacking off a bit."

In an interview with the Associated Press, Hauer added that it's too early to declare victory. "We don't know yet whether … we're through act one of a two-act play or whether we're just four lines into a three-act play."

With China a hotbed for new respiratory bugs, Hauer said, U.S. officials are working to install health officials in China who could monitor events year round.

He said that officials expect to distribute a test within a week that can definitively diagnose the new virus. That would allow laboratories around the nation to easily settle whether a patient is truly infected with SARS, or is sick with a more common bug.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said Monday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has isolated a virus "which we think pretty strongly is the cause of SARS.

"We now have that virus growing," Fauci told PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." "Once have you it growing in a laboratory, then you can do things with it that can speed the process enormously, with regard to vaccine, therapeutics and diagnostics."

Hauer said officials are baffled as to why U.S. patients are less sick than those in Canada, where SARS has forced thousands of people in Toronto to be quarantined and has killed 10.

"It might be that some of these folks in Canada just got more of the virus, were in closer contact," he said. "Any theory I give you at this point in time would just be a theory."

Testifying before a congressional committee, top health officials cautioned that things may get worse.

"This has very quickly become an international epidemic," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of CDC, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "We don't know where this is going to go. We have to be prepared for this to continue to spread."

Officials believe the virus originated in Guangdong, a southern province of China, where respiratory illnesses often start and spread.

Chinese officials kept news of the disease secret for months, allowing SARS to spread before international health authorities could begin to fight it.

Hauer hopes that will change if international experts are stationed there permanently.

"If you've got people on the ground, you have a much better sense as to what's going on," he said. "I'm optimistic at this point that we will have some kind of presence after this is all over."

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