Scientists are scrambling to try to get a handle on a new killer illness that has been spreading around the world.
The flu-like ailment has caused at least nine deaths in seven countries, including two in North America.
More than 170 people have fallen ill over the past three weeks, most of them in Hong Kong and Vietnam, according to reports. And experts suspect that another 300 people in China's Guangdong province had the same disease beginning in mid-November.
But the World Health Organization told reporters today that it did not appear that the mysterious respiratory disease would evolve into a world pandemic.
After issuing a rare global alert about the disease on Saturday, the U.N. health body is now saying that the new illness does not appear to be a highly infectious type of flu since it is not spreading as easily as the flu would.
"Influenza is very easily transmitted. With the disease we are talking about now, it does not seem to be that easy. The likelihood of a pandemic is minimal," WHO head of communicable diseases David Heymann told Reuters.
But health officials are not able to rule out the idea that the disease that doctors have dubbed Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, might turn out to be a form of the flu.
Cases Emerge Worldwide; New York on Alert
No cases have been identified in the United States, but health officials are checking out more than a dozen possible ones.
"It will not be a surprise to us if we identified cases in the United States," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC is watching 14 suspect cases in the United States, but Gerberding said she doubted that any of them are connected to the outbreak.
New York health officials are already on the alert. A doctor who treated one of the Singapore victims had been in New York for a medical conference. On his way back Saturday he fell sick, was pulled off the plane in Frankfurt, Germany, and put into quarantine.
Britain today reported its first suspected case, according to Reuters. England's chief medical officer said the patient was admitted to a hospital on Sunday after returning from a trip to Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, French health authorities told The Associated Press they're worried about two people who hospitalized after they returned from Asia with flu-like symptoms. The pair has been hospitalized in Paris for tests.
The North American fatalities were a woman and her grown son who died in Toronto after visiting Hong Kong.
Following the case of the doctor who fell sick on the way home from New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city is taking no chances. "What we have done is interviewed every single person who came contact with him when he was here. We are observing all of them," Bloomberg said. "We have heightened our surveillance of all the hospitals just in case there is an outbreak of something."
Warning Cards Issued at Airports
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday began distributing cards at airports receiving flights returning directly from Hong Kong, warning travelers returning to the United States from Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, People's Republic of China and Hanoi, Vietnam that they may have been exposed to cases of SARS.