Guangzhou, China The key to controlling the fast-spreading respiratory illness known as SARS could lie in identifying highly infectious people, a World Health Organization official said Saturday.
Puzzled by the rapid but seemingly erratic spread of the new disease, a WHO team is visiting hospitals and talking with experts in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome began.
The four-member team is most interested in "the phenomenon of 'super spreaders' -- people who seem to spread their disease to a lot of other people," said the WHO team leader, Dr. Robert Breiman.
Figuring out why they are so infectious "may lead to public health approaches that will be very effective for control," he said as new deaths were reported Saturday by Hong Kong and Malaysia.
Worldwide, SARS has killed at least 89 people and sickened 2,300 in more than a dozen countries. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath. No cure has been found.
In the largest outbreak of the disease outside of Asia, an eighth person died of the disease Saturday in Canada, and health authorities were investigating whether a ninth death was caused by the virus. All eight deaths have been in Toronto.
Aside from health-care workers who caught SARS from patients, those infected have little in common, Breiman said.
Guangdong accounts for 40 of the 46 deaths reported in China. The first case was recorded in November and since then more than 1,100 people in the province have been sickened.
On Saturday, Vice Premier Wu Yi was quoted by state media as calling for a national disease warning system, with a focus on fighting SARS and "emphasis placed on a public health information system."
Wu's comments, carried by newspapers and the Xinhua News Agency, were the highest-level response yet to demands that the secretive communist government change its handling of such outbreaks. The report followed an extraordinary apology Friday by the country's top disease-prevention official amid international criticism that China released information too slowly.