'X Files'-like project looks for cause of mysterious deaths

Tuesday, March 2, 2004

ATLANTA -- In a project resembling something out of "The X Files," federal health officials say the causes of a quarter of the deaths that have stumped coroners in recent years appear to be from ordinary, treatable conditions.

The Unexplained Deaths Project is a collection of data on the mysterious deaths of 227 children and adults from 1995 to 2003.

Despite advances in medical technology, a specific cause of death was found for just 53 of the cases, slightly more than a quarter. The findings were presented Monday at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

More than half of the 53 deaths were caused by bacteria that could have been treated with medicines, said Sarah Reagan, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist with the project. Vaccines would have prevented other cases.

Nineteen children's deaths were blamed on flu.

Thirty-seven percent of the determined causes of death involved a respiratory illness and 36 percent were from sepsis, a common bloodstream infection from toxin-producing bacteria. The causes of the remaining deaths included pneumonia and heart problems.

The project was launched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to serve as an early warning system for emerging diseases. About a dozen health departments around the country participate.

AIDS, Legionnaires' Disease and hantavirus sickened people for years before the diseases were first identified by health officials, said Reagan.

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