Full alert against the deadly bug


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 30 Mar 2003

By SEAH CHIANG NEE

FOR the Chee family, these are very unusual, troubling days. The father can’t drive his lorry so there’ll be no income, the two children have no school and everyone cannot step outside their flat – for 10 days. Friends and relatives have to buy food for them, leaving it outside their door. 

The family, featured in an afternoon tabloid, is one of 443 others (involving 860 people) who have been placed under quarantine at home. 

Violation of quarantine carries a heavy fine and possible jail. It is aimed at combating a mystery deadly bug that has killed two and afflicted 74 Singaporeans, 10 of them seriously. 

The government has closed all schools, from kindergartens to junior colleges, keeping 600,000 students home for 10 days until April 6. The last time such a measure was taken was in 1958 when 250,000 students were kept at home during a virulent poliomyelitis outbreak. 

But the toughest is the quarantine that is hitting the pockets of people who are daily-rated or self-employed. 

These measures are Singapore’s response to tackle a severe new form of pneumonia sweeping the region. So far, it has killed 50 and made 1,300 others sick in 13 countries. It was brought into Singapore a fortnight ago by three Singaporean holidaymakers who were infected in Hong Kong. 

EXTENDED VACATION: The government has closed all schools, from kindergartens to junior colleges, keeping 600,000 students home for 10 days until April 6.--APpic.

But it was in the past week that the epidemic deteriorated rapidly: two people died and the number of infected rose sharply. Most of them were either relatives or had come into contact with the patients – at least two dozen were healthcare givers, doctors and nurses. 

For the four million people here who have been used to hearing bad news, this latest dose is creating near panic, especially when the medical world doesn’t know what it is or how it is transmitted. 

The disease, dubbed Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), is believed to be spread when small amounts of the virus in airborne water droplets, perhaps left in the air by the “index patient” when he coughs in an elevator or lobby, are inhaled. Face masks are in hot demand. 

Living in a small, tightly packed city, Singaporeans are worried about its rapid spread. It appears to be very virulent. 

On the first day of their “enforced” holidays, shopping malls, restaurants, libraries and other traditional haunts for students around midday were unusually quiet. It was obvious that schoolchildren were not celebrating their “extra” vacation. 

This is the latest of a list of major problems hitting Singapore in recent years, ranging from terrorist plots to bomb targets to a serious loss of jobs and, lately, impact of the Iraq war. 

“SARS is more dangerous for us. The war is far away from Singapore but SARS is right here and it’s getting worse,” said a housewife on television. 

It is likely to hit tourism. Singapore Airlines has announced it is cutting down the number of flights because of reduced seat demands, partly because of SARS. 

Tourism is Singapore’s biggest private employer and people are worried about retrenchment. 

Earlier, Singapore had advised its people against unnecessary travel to Hong Kong, Hanoi, and Guangdong province in southern China, suspected to be the origin of the outbreak. 

Last week, Canada's travel advisory included Singapore along with these three places as among the places to avoid. 

Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang said it was now possible that other countries would follow suit. 

Tourism is a major earner in the city-state, generating about S$9bil in revenue last year. This explains why the government does not want to over-react on the dangers. 

Lim said the decision to close the schools was tough. “We are very much aware of the implications of such a move. But on balance, although there is no clear medical reasons to undertake this, we thought it would be useful because it allays the fears of parents.” 

US health officials say at least 80% of SARS victims appear to recover, but the rest become critically ill and about half of them die. 

Victims who are older than 40 and who have other health problems, such as heart or liver disease, are most likely to move to the life-threatening phase of the infection. 

Evidence gathered so far indicates that to contract the illness, people must come into close and prolonged contact with infected people. 

“The vast majority of cases have had very close or prolonged contact with another case and a large proportion of cases have been among health workers,” one doctor said. 

“Normally in a flu epidemic, most cases are infected in the general population, so this disease is fairly limited compared to what you would see in a flu epidemic.”  

The bad news is that doctors have found no definite evidence that any one drug is effective against the illness. China has reported that antibiotics do not have an obvious effect.  

Countries in this region, which have been praying for more Chinese tourists to prop up their weak economies, are hoping that it will succeed in containing this bug. 

Otherwise, it can turn into a full-blown health and economic crisis. 

  • Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com (e-mail: cnseah2000@ littlespeck.com ) 

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