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LONDON (AP) — The first major study of SARS trends estimates that about 20 percent of the people hospitalized with the disease in Hong Kong are dying from it, and that more than half of those over 60 die.

The findings are similar to earlier, cruder estimates for Hong Kong, one of the areas hardest-hit by SARS. However, experts warn that the figures do not reflect the chances of an average person anywhere dying from a bout of SARS once it is contracted.

The average age of the SARS patients in the study — those hospitalized in Hong Kong — is 50, and disease experts generally agree that the virus is much more deadly in people over 60.

Nearly 200 of the more than 1,600 people believed to have the respiratory disease in Hong Kong have died.

Led by Roy Anderson, regarded as one of the world's leading infectious disease experts, the new research is the latest in a weekslong debate about the true death rate for SARS.

The rate has risen sharply from below 5 percent in the weeks that SARS was first spreading around the globe.

Worldwide, the World Health Organization, which is leading the effort to stop SARS' spread, says the death rate ranges from 6 percent to 10 percent, depending on location. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the rate at 6.6 percent. One WHO official noted that the death rate is lower in places where the outbreak has ended or is nearing an end.

"We know that in a real situation where the outbreak has completed itself from beginning to end — in Hanoi, Vietnam — they had an 8 percent case fatality rate," said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson.

And in Canada, where patients have been older, the death rate is 15 percent, he said.

"What we do see is that in people under 40 the death rate is generally lower and in people over 60 the numbers are much higher," Thompson said.

The Lancet study, conducted by scientists at Imperial College in London, the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong health authorities, estimated that the death rate could be as high as 55 percent in people over the age of 60.

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