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Age May Play Role In SARS Deaths

A pro-government Iranian female demonstrator makes her way as she holds a poster showing pictures of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, right, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the conclusion of an annual demonstration in front of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 4, 2009, in a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the Embassy by militant students.
AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
Two separate studies released Tuesday analyzing SARS outbreaks in Hong Kong and Toronto show that age and overall health have a lot to do with survival, reports CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin.

One study found that about 20 percent of the people hospitalized with the disease in Hong Kong are dying from it, while more than half of those over 60 die.

Nearly 200 of the more than 1,600 people believed to have the respiratory disease in Hong Kong have died.

Worldwide, the World Health Organization, which is leading the effort to stop SARS' spread, says the death rate ranges from 6 percent to 10 percent, depending on location. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the rate at 6.6 percent.

In Canada, where patients have been older, the death rate is 15 percent, said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson.

"What we do see is that in people under 40 the death rate is generally lower and in people over 60 the numbers are much higher," Thompson said.

A study conducted by scientists at Imperial College in London, the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong health authorities, estimated that the death rate could be as high as 55 percent in people over the age of 60.

In younger people — those under 60 — the death rate could be as low as 6.8 percent, the study found.

"It appears that people who are dying appear to be older with some significant underlying disease," says Dr. James Hughes of the Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Mark Denison of Vanderbilt University, one of only a handful of corona virus experts in the country, says the relationship between age and illness or death could be crucial.

Early indications are that children seem to be spared the worst symptoms of SARS, raising the possibility that early infection could lead to later immunity.

"Examples in the past may have been viruses like measles that caused bad disease in adults who've never seen it, but caused a moderately serious disease in children," says Denison.

Still, Denison is the first to admit, the corona virus "mutates as a hobby," and the data is too preliminary to draw conclusions from.

"Everything about this virus has surprised me," he says.

Health officials continue to be surprised – and delighted – by the fact that the United States has been spared; to date the books show 65 cases and no deaths.

Some attribute it to extremely aggressive measures on a local public health level – things like quarantining aircraft and banning summer school students from Asian countries.

Some calls those precautions extreme; others say they are wise.

"As long as there's SARS transmission ongoing anywhere in the world it remains an issue for us in the United States," says CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding.

The new studies back that up, finding that the only thing that can stop SARS on its global trek is continued hyper-vigilance.

In other SARS developments:

  • The head of the World Health Organization warned the SARS outbreak had not yet reached a peak in China and was still spreading despite increased efforts to stop it; 25,000 Chinese are now under quarantine.
  • Motorola shut down its Beijing headquarters after a worker came down with SARS.
  • In central China, protesters in Hujiayao village in Henan province ransacked a hospital on April 28 and 29 that had been designated as a SARS treatment center, destroying walls and fencing, a local official said.
  • Doctors in Hong Kong say they have helped some SARS patients survive by administering a serum that contains antibodies to the virus obtained from patients who have recovered.
  • SARS has killed at least 480 people worldwide, out of more than 6,600 infected. Mainland China has reported 214 deaths, Hong Kong 193, Singapore 28, Canada 23, Taiwan 11, Vietnam five, and Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand two each.