Alabama Mystery Illness Solved, Chalked Up to Cold and Flu

PHOTO: Testing confirmed the nature of the respiratory illnesses in Alabama.
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It turns out the mystery Alabama illness was a coincidental cluster of varying viruses, but that doesn't mean public health officials were wrong to raise the alarm, experts say.

Testing confirmed that the seven respiratory illnesses in the southeastern part of the state were the result of a mix of the common cold and a strain of flu, rather than the feared new H7N9 bird flu and the new SARS-like virus currently making headlines in other parts of the world, Alabama Department of Public Health announced Thursday.

"This is a great example of science sorting through the mystery of a 'pseudo-outbreak,'" said Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical editor for ABC News. "As expected, these were a variety of infections that just happened to occur close in time."

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Health officials became aware of a possible mystery illness on May 16 when seven patients came down with a cough, a fever and shortness of breath, but there wasn't a known cause for these symptoms. Two patients eventually died after coming down with pneumonia, Dr. Mary McIntyre, who is leading the investigation, told ABCNews.com in an email.

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Since the patients had little in common – their ages ranged from mid-20s to late 80s, and their test results varied -- the health department couldn't find a link among them.

"You never want to assume that there isn't a connection, because as soon as you do that, you will be proved wrong," Besser said. "The first cases of the next SARS or the next flu pandemic could look very much like this. You treat every one of these clusters the same: You attack it with rapid public health science."

The five patients still alive seem to be getting better, McIntyre said Wednesday. One of them was released from the hospital Tuesday.

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