Health Official Warns New Disease Spreading

By FRED DODSWORTH Special to the Planet
Friday April 11, 2003

A UC Berkeley ceremony honoring Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, as “Alumna of the Year” became an impromptu press conference last week on the mysterious disease SARS, which stands for severe acute respiratory disease. 

Dr. Gerberding, a graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s School of Public Health, addressed a standing-room-only crowd of Bay Area public health professionals reporters, students and faculty for over an hour on Tuesday. 

Originally scheduled to discuss bioterrorism, Gerberding devoted most of her speech to the emerging global epidemic that already has infected more than 2,700 people around the world. Gerberding said it was likely that a U.S. health professional had been infected with the disease. 

“The most recent diagnosis has all the hallmarks of SARS,” she said about the worker, “and we’re confident it will turn out to be a true case.”  

It was the first confirmed case in America of the disease’s transmission to a health-care provider. Two other healthcare workers had been reported with suspected SARS infections, but their cases had not been confirmed as of early this week.  

Health-care workers in the US have been cautious when dealing with SARS patients, taking precautions to avoid the infection which has had a devastating effect on health-care workers in Canada, Southeast Asia and Asia. 

SARS currently has a 4 percent mortality rate. In her address Gerberding noted SARS may have a very high attack rate. In the only example currently analyzed, 66 percent of people exposed to a Hong Kong SARS carrier developed the disease, according to Gerberding. 

“We are very concerned about the spread of this virus,” Gerberding said. “It does appear to be transmitted very efficiently, and what we know about respiratory viruses suggests that the potential for infecting large numbers of people is very great. We may be in the very early stages of what could be a much larger problem.” 

Despite the persistent questions about SARS, Gerberding also spoke about bioterrorism, funding for public health issues and obesity, which she called the most dangerous epidemic facing America today. 

“We are enjoying unprecedented investments in the public health infrastructure as a consequence of congressional concern, the executive branch concern and fears people have about the ongoing risk of terrorism of varying kinds,” she said. “The philosophy that we’ve been using in all of this is to try to build this kind of preparedness on a solid foundation of existing public health services and structures.”