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Health officials probe deadly respiratory illness in Alabama

By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - U.S. and state health authorities are investigating an unidentified respiratory illness that has killed two of 10 people hospitalized with it in Alabama since last week.

Preliminary tests do not indicate the bird flu, nor a new mutation of any known influenza virus, said Dr. Mary McIntyre, an assistant state health officer at the Alabama Department of Public Health. Two patients did test positive for the H1N1 strain of the flu.

Bacteria such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) remains a possibility, especially as a secondary infection, McIntyre said on Wednesday. However, one patient tested for MRSA by a physician had negative results.

"At this point, it could be anything. We are testing for everything," McIntyre said.

State health officials believe it is unlikely the patients are suffering from the new coronavirus that surfaced in the Middle East last year, because none had traveled, she said.

Laboratory samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for evaluation, and the agency is expected to issue a report within 24 hours, she said.

Those hospitalized with the illness had symptoms of fever, coughing, pneumonia and shortness of breath, health officials said.

The first checked into a hospital last week, and the most recent patients were hospitalized on Wednesday. One person has been released, one is improving and the others are still suffering from their initial symptoms, according to McIntyre.

The patients range in age from the 20s to late 80s and all lived in the Dothan, Alabama, area, but they were spread out around the community with no epidemiological link, McIntyre said.

"Right now, we are not finding a connection...such as a place of work, a restaurant where they all ate, or a meeting they all attended," she said.

People with similar symptoms are encouraged to stay home and call their physician, health officials said.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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