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Last Updated

02 Apr 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2003


Tighten Disease Tracking

The tarmac drama Tuesday at San Jose International Airport was a false alarm, but it pointed up the weaknesses and confusion of public health responses to severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. After five people complained during a flight from Tokyo of flu-like symptoms, the other passengers were held for two tense hours on the ground, then released with warning leaflets. Three of the five were taken to an emergency room and then allowed to leave; two were examined at the scene. The cases were not SARS, doctors decided.

Since emerging in China five months ago, the mysterious illness has spread to at least 1,804 people in 17 countries, killing up to 62. California has had 20 suspected cases and no deaths.

In Canada, where 129 probable and suspected cases have been reported, six of them fatal, health officials quarantined about 46 people in Vancouver after they were exposed to people with the illness. The most severe precautions were taken in Asia, with Singapore shutting down its largest college, Taiwan barring ships from the mainland from docking and Hong Kong officials threatening to send to a government quarantine camp hundreds of residents in a 33-story apartment building where the infection appeared.

Public health officials took wildly varying levels of action -- from release with a warning card to full quarantine -- because there is no medical consensus on how to prevent the spread of the disease, or even on how it spreads. But it is clear that public health officials would be on surer footing today if Chinese officials had been honest and forthright in reporting the disease when it first appeared in the southern province of Guandong at least five months ago.

Even now, China is not fulfilling a promise to provide the World Health Organization with daily provincial reports on progress of the disease. SARS is characterized by a sudden onset of fever of more than 100.4 degrees, coughing, muscle aches and chills but, unlike the common flu, not a runny nose.

Individual nations should give WHO as much high-powered assistance as possible. In the United States, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Treasury Secretary John W. Snow should, for instance, insist that nations trading with the U.S. report infectious disease outbreaks.

Why the Treasury secretary? Because the illness has forced U.S. companies big and small to alter their business plans. Firms in many cases have canceled all travel to Asia. Peter Kastner, chief research officer of Boston-based Aberdeen Group, predicts that if the disease is not brought under control soon, the manufacturing of Chinese products from electronics to Christmas toys may be severely affected. Already, chip maker Intel and computer maker Hewlett-Packard have closed their Hong Kong offices.

It is hard to imagine that bioterrorism could be countered until the containment of diseases like SARS is mastered. The leaders of the wealthy nations need to wake to the public health dangers that accompany international travel and global trade.