BORGHOK, Cambodia (AP) - In a remote Cambodian jungle hamlet, a tribal chief chanted prayers, drew pig's blood and strung up chicken feathers to fight a mystery illness - with symptoms similar to SARS - that was sweeping his community.
After weeks of investigations, Western and Cambodian doctors have ruled out severe acute respiratory syndrome. But the unknown disease has killed seven of the 392 people infected in the villages of Borghok and Ping in northeastern Cambodia.
The illness serves as a reminder to the global medical community - already reeling under the shock of SARS - of the many unknown diseases lurking in various parts of the world. It also highlights the plight of areas untouched by the modern world, where even common diseases such as the flu can be life-threatening.
Doctors visiting Borghok and Ping said the disease was like nothing they had seen before. The symptoms included fever, coughing, breathing problems - all signs of SARS. But the victims also suffered from diarrhea and maintained normal white blood cell counts, something not usually found in SARS patients.
The outbreak began on March 2, baffling the illiterate and poor residents of the two villages. The communities about 200 miles northeast of the capital, Phnom Penh, have no paved roads, and the nearest hospital is a three-hour trek through hilly forest.
Associated Press journalists visiting Borghok recently were told that six residents died within four days of the outbreak, some within 24 hours of falling ill.
"I don't know why the spirits were angry or which spirit brought the disease," said village chief Meou Vang, squatting bare-chested amid Borghok's bamboo and thatch huts. The village is one of the country's poorest communities.
Meou Vang, 50, did what he thought was best.
He placated the spirits by slaughtering a pig, and mixing its blood with rice wine that was drunk by villagers.
Two chickens were also killed, cooked and eaten; their skin and feathers mounted on sticks and hung from tree branches above the dirt road leading to the settlement.
Dr. Prudence Hamade of Health Unlimited, a British non-governmental organization, was the first Western doctor to reach the villages on March 10.
She tended to suffering patients and distributed antibiotics. When she traveled a few days later to Phnom Penh for a conference she learned of SARS for the first time and became alarmed.
"The symptoms were almost identical," she recalled.
She described the mystery illness as a form of pneumonia preying on people perpetually in poor health.
Cambodia is one of the few countries in Asia without a confirmed SARS case. The disease has claimed some 500 lives worldwide, most of them in China and Hong Kong.
Representatives of the World Health Organization and the Cambodian government visited Borghok and Ping on March 19-21.
When it appeared that patients responded to antibiotics, health officials felt confident enough to rule out SARS.
"There is no evidence that this outbreak is in any way linked to SARS," said the joint mission's report.
But the bad news is doctors still don't know much more about the disease.
"A spate of deaths like this caused by an illness we cannot determine by tests is unusual," said Dr. Severin Xylander, a German doctor and the only World Health Organization representative to visit the area.
Meou Vang, the village chief, doesn't care. He says he brought the disease under control with the rituals he conducted on March 20, witnessed by about 200 villagers.
"It stopped tormenting us after the big ceremony. I know, because people stopped dying and didn't get sick anymore," he said.
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