SARS Hits Family At Home

Life And Death Struggle Against Mysterious Virus

Someday, 10-month-old Zora Lynn will hear the incredible story of how her parents, Mark and Christie Van Camp, traveled all the way to China to bring her home to Wichita, Kansas.

And, she'll hear how this family adventure turned into a life-and-death struggle against a mysterious virus called SARS. Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports.

"It was scary to think that this trip of a lifetime to receive our youngest daughter could ultimately do something tragic to her father," says Christie Van Camp.

"I started having symptoms actually while we were still in China," says Mark Van Camp. "I told Christie I was having some respiratory problems. It continued to get progressively worse."

What the Van Camps didn't know back in February was that they had been at the hot zone of the SARS epidemic -- Guangdong province in China. By the time they came home, Mark had all the symptoms of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"It got to where I could not lay down," remembers Mark. "The pain in my chest was too great. I was as sick as I think I've ever been. And that's when Christie said, 'We're going to take you to the emergency room. This is ridiculous.'"

With his fever climbing past 100 degrees, Mark was placed in isolation. More than a pint of fluid was draining from his lungs.

"That was actually the first time I was scared," he says. "When I saw the jars, I realized I could have died."

While the virus has not claimed any lives here in the U.S., it has killed ten people in Ontario, Canada – and it has even shut down hospitals there.

Some doctors worry that SARS could become a global epidemic. Twenty-nine states and at least 20 countries have now reported suspected SARS cases. That's why the fear is spreading even faster than the disease.

And now the race is on to find a cure.

Joe DeRisi, a professor and biochemist at the University of California at San Francisco, calls himself a "virus hunter." His state of the art lab has helped identify the virus that doctors believe is the cause of this disease.

"It seems to be very virulent. It seems to affect healthcare workers who tend to patients who have it," says DeRisi. "These are people who take precautions. They wash their hands; they wear facemasks. Yet they still are becoming ill with this sickness."

This is a sign, DeRisi says, that the virus is very easy to spread.

Scientists believe this galloping virus may have started in a pig or another animal in China, which may have been mutilated and infected a human.

DeRisi has developed technology that can identify every known virus on the planet. That's why the CDC sent him a sample from a suspected SARS patient to see if he could find a match.

The corona virus, named for its spikes that resemble a crown, is the virus that causes the common cold. DeRisi believes a new mutation of this virus could be the cause of SARS.

"That was a 'eureka' moment," says DeRisi.

But if this is related to the common cold, then why is SARS so deadly?

"It seems to be a far more drastic version of the common cold," says DeRisi. "When people succumb to this disease, the tissues they use to breathe within their lungs are all but destroyed. So these patients are suffocating. When you die, you die of respiratory failure."

Scientists, however, are making progress. They've devised a test to diagnose SARS that will be available in weeks, so patients can be quickly quarantined.

Dr. Ellen Weber is on the front line, working in the emergency room at the University of San Francisco Medical Center. Like many hospitals, UCSF already had plans to handle anthrax and smallpox.

"We're on very high alert for this right now," says Weber. "We're very ready."

In addition to the flu-like symptoms, a major warning sign is whether a patient has recently been to Asia. For now, prevention is the best medicine.

Masks for healthcare workers are called N-95 masks. They have a higher filtration than the average surgical mask.

It isn't necessary, however, to go out and buy one of these masks since physicians believe the disease is possible, but not probable, for most Americans in this country. In order to get SARS, you most likely need to be in direct contact with someone who's had that disease or been in a suspect country.

Like the Van Camps, Alan Hoskin is paying a price for visiting the Guangdong province.

Hoskin, who doctors believe had SARS, spent more than two weeks quarantined in his home near Sacramento.

"It's been difficult being in here and being underneath the microscope," says Hoskin, who compared it to being under medical house arrest.

During his quarantine, Hoskin was allowed to take an occasional field trip, like to his mailbox. Otherwise, he couldn't leave his property, a financial disaster for a man who makes his money driving a limousine.

"It's been nerve-wracking. Everybody's eyeballing me every time they go by, looking at the house," says Hoskin. "Probably making sure I'm not out of my little jail."

Back in Wichita, Christie Van Camp is not afraid of SARS. Believe it or not, she is going back to China tomorrow to help other families pick up their babies. This time, she knows to take precautions.

"I'm going, too, to represent that I'm not afraid to go back," she says. "I think it's more dangerous to get in your car and drive somewhere than to return to China."

She's right. Less than four percent of the people who get SARS die. There are far deadlier diseases to worry about, like malaria, which kills two million people a year, every year.

Nevertheless, DeRisi says the SARS outbreak is a warning to us all.

"I think it's a wakeup call. With the increasing world population -- combined with modern air travel and the overuse of antibiotics -- we can expect new infectious agents that are harder to deal with that spread faster than ever before."
  • Rebecca Leung

48 Hours App

More From 48 Hours

Comments