Helping SARS to spread

  • Health
  • Thursday, 10 Apr 2003


HUNDREDS of expatriates fleeing Hong Kong because of the mystery Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus are risking spreading the disease abroad, a doctor in the territory has warned. 

A Malaysian family wearing surgical masks at the KL International Airport after a return trip from Hong Kong.

Dr David Stirling said families trying to escape the outbreak of the incurable illness were now the most likely cause of exporting SARS.  

“Many people have, in my view foolishly, rushed to leave Hong Kong – taken their children out and missed the quarantine,” said Dr Stirling.  

“They may be actively carrying the disease and transmitting it around the world. To me it’s daft. People have gone to Britain, France, America and Australia – all over the place. One of the worst environments for the dissemination of viral diseases is an aeroplane. People who don’t need to travel at the moment shouldn’t.” 

Recently, president George W. Bush gave American federal officials the power to quarantine anyone suspected of SARS infection. It is the first time in 20 years that a new condition has been added to the list of illnesses for which someone can be held to prevent contagion. The virus originated in southern China and has been spread around the world from Hong Kong.  

Police in Hong Kong are hunting about 200 people thought to have been exposed to the virus but who have avoided a quarantine order. Dr Stirling said that people’s decision to flee was irrational and thoughtless. 

“The Hong Kong government has been very efficient in setting up centres for people to be quarantined and kept protected from others,” he said. “If you think you have been exposed you are really duty-bound to keep yourself apart for at least a week. But we are so crowded here that it’s hard to know whether you have been exposed or not.” 

Dr Stirling, 53, said that SARS was not to be taken lightly but should not be a cause for panic. 

He said: “If the viral load that hits you is high, you get very sick indeed, whether you are very young or very old. No one has a natural immunity against it.” 

However, he added that “a very tiny proportion” of the population had been infected and most people are now aware of the risks and taking sensible precautions, such as wearing face masks and staying away from crowds where possible. 

John Oxford, a professor of virology at Queen Mary’s Medical School, London, agreed that people fleeing the outbreak posed a risk of spreading the infection. 

He said: “A close eye has to be kept on this and I suspect that a close eye has to be kept on the fact that anyone in Hong Kong with the disease might decide to come to England to be treated.” 

Studies so far suggest that the cause of SARS is a previously unknown corona virus, similar to the type that causes colds and pneumonias.  

However, the new version results in an especially acute illness in which the ability to breathe can be destroyed. People over 40 years old and those with underlying illnesses appear to be at greatest risk. SARS is thought to have a 4% mortality rate, and 90% of people who contract it recover within a week or so. – © Telegraph Group Ltd, London

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