SARS Virus Lives In
Recovered Patients
For A Month
By Helen Luk

HONG KONG (AP) -- Doctors have found that the SARS virus can remain in recovered patients for at least a month, and have also urged patients to avoid personal contact such as hugging and kissing when they go home.
The latest discovery came as Hong Kong officials said earlier this week that 12 people who recovered from SARS have suffered relapses. The new findings raise questions as to how doctors can tell whether a patient has fully recovered, underscoring the difficulty health authorities face in tackling this new disease.
"The virus still exists in the patients' urine and stool after they were discharged. It will persist for at least another month or maybe even longer," said Dr. Joseph Sung, head of the Department of Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "We don't know how long it can actually survive."
"The virus can survive in the environment for longer than a day," Sung said earlier this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "For example, if your saliva gets on a table surface, don't assume that it will be all right after it dries up. The virus can survive for more than a day even after the surface dries."
Sung, who works at the Prince of Wales Hospital, which was hard-hit by SARS, has monitored the cases of about 240 recovered SARS patients, and he said none have spread the disease to family or friends.
Still, Sung along with the territory's Health Department urged extra caution for those who survive severe acute respiratory disease, which has killed 162 people and sickened 1,600 in Hong Kong.
"We warn them not to have close contact with family members, like no kissing, no hugging," Sung said.
If recovered patients wear masks, avoid close contact with family members and are particularly careful about toilet hygiene, things should be "quite safe" in their households, Sung said. He did not specify how long such precautions would need to be taken.
Hong Kong experts believe a major SARS outbreak at the Amoy Gardens apartment complex was caused partly through contaminated waste going through leaking sewage pipes, as well as in common areas such as elevators and lobbies.
Dr. Samson Wong, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said recently that the possibility of recovered patients infecting others through their excrement is low.
"But we can't rule out these recovered people who still have traces of virus in their body will not infect others," he added.
At a news conference Thursday, Hong Kong Health Director Dr. Margaret Chan also said those who recover should stay careful about their hygiene to avoid the risk of infecting others.
Sung said in some special circumstances, the spreading of the virus was "similar to airborne transmission," such as in the outbreaks at Amoy Gardens, where more than 300 residents were infected, and at the Prince of Wales.
"We still believe that the virus is transmitted by droplets, and that it doesn't just float around in the air," Sung said. "But that also depends on how big or small the droplet is. If it's tiny, it can be transmitted in the air."
Sung said in a Prince of Wales hospital ward, one patient infected dozens of medical staff as a nebulizer -- a machine that turns drugs into mists to administer them to respiratory patients -- spread the virus from his breath.
At Amoy Gardens, a large amount of virus spread from leaking sewage pipes apparently were carried back into the apartments by air currents.
"Whether the virus is transmitted by droplets or airborne is a spectrum," Sung said. "When it's large, it's a droplet. But if it's tiny, then it's almost like a grain of dust."
Hong Kong health officials have insisted there is no evidence of airborne transmission, and if there had been, the territory would be dealing with many, many more SARS cases than it has suffered.



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