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Former CDC chief talks about SARS

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May 16, 2003
by Helen Chickering

Durham, NC-- The scramble by scientists around the world to contain and find treatments for the respiratory illness - SARS - is proving to be an incredible challenge.

At the same time, it's also providing unique learning opportunities for schoolchildren around the world.

In one classroom, a group of students got a sars-science lesson from a national expert. 

Sixth grade science class at Githens Middle School. But this isn't your typical science lesson, and the man in front of the class isn't your typical teacher. Dr. Bill Roper used to head the Centers For Disease Control, the government agency that is leading the American SARS investigation.

He's now dean of the school of public health at the University of North Carolina and still consults with the CDC, but today he's sharing his knowledge with students.

Many of the questions being asked in this classroom are being tackled by scientists and health officials around the world, a rare chance for students, getting to see medical detectives in action. “I learned that sars is a very quickly spreading disease with many symptoms," said one student.

"And I don't' want to catch it, cause I can die, and it's spreading over China rapidly," said a classmate.

Dr. Roper says parents should talk to their children about SARS, but stress that the risk here in this country is extremely rare. Scientists note that children aren't any more at risk of getting SARS than anyone else. Although the CDC and World Health Organization aren't publishing case counts with the patient's age, there does not seem to be many reports of kids with SARS.

There is some evidence that children may be resistant to the virus, but scientists say it's too early to speculate. "Many of these people had so much trouble breathing they had to be put on a respirator, know what a respirator is," said Dr. Roper, watching a disease outbreak unfold before their eyes. A lesson not found in any textbook.