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'Mystery' illness in Alabama mostly cold and flu, tests show

A cluster of mysterious respiratory illnesses that alarmed southeast Alabama turned out to be nothing more sinister than ordinary cold and seasonal flu, health officials said Thursday.

Lab tests by state and federal officials ruled out avian influenza and a novel coronavirus, now known as MERS, that has killed 22 people in the Middle East.

“There is no evidence of any new or unexpected virus circulating,” said Dr. Don Williamson, the Alabama state health officer, who said he wanted to put "closure to this cluster."

Seven people fell ill and two died earier this month in southeast Alabama after coming down with symptoms that included shortness of fever, shortness of breath and cough. All of the patients were adults ages 32 to 87. The people who died were 34 and 55, Williamson said.

Of the seven patients whose specimens were tested, six were found positive for influenza A or rhinovirus or a combination of the two and three patients were found to have bacterial pneumonia. 

“There wasn’t anything unusual or strange,” Williamson noted. He added that flu often continues to circulate in the spring and summer in his state.

Increased worries over the spread of two bird deadly flu viruses -- H5N3 and H7N9 -- and the identification of the new coronavirus likely contributed to the concerns about this cluster, he added.

“Because everybody is really worried about the possibility of either this novel coronavirus or the H7N9 flu from China, there was heightened awareness,” he said.”

He praised doctors and clinicians who raised questions about unusual respiratory illnesses because next time, it might be a new and deadly germ.

“If people aren’t attentive, we’re going to miss it,” Williamson said.