Sunday, April 6, 2003

Researcher says
Hawaii at risk
for SARS

Team meets China health experts

Associated Press

Hawaii's place on the map could increase the risk of the flu-like mystery illness that has killed at least 85 people worldwide, mostly in Asia, according to a specialist on the geography of health and disease.

More than 2,200 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, had been reported in 16 countries as of Friday.

None of Hawaii's four suspected cases has been confirmed and the health risk of SARS in the state is probably not great, but there is a need to be vigilant and responsible, said Nancy Lewis, director of research at the East-West Center.

"We also need to be aware that this is probably not going to be the last time we face this kind of challenge," Lewis said.

Nations and states like Hawaii that are heavily dependent on tourism, international business and foreign investment face special challenges as infectious-disease risks spread internationally, she said.

"The economic impact of SARS in Hong Kong is predicted to be large with reverberations throughout Asia, and thus in Hawaii," Lewis said.

The world has become complacent about the ability to overcome infectious and vector-borne disease, she said.

Chris NcNally, an East-West Center research fellow, noted that Chinese authorities have repressed information concerning development of the disease in China's southern Guangdong Province.

"This response stems from a long-held penchant in China for burying bad news and manipulating statistics to contain social instability," said McNally, a specialist on China and international political economy.

"It, however, also expresses that China, in particular Guangdong province, has become heavily enmeshed in the global economic system," he said. "Authorities feared that any panic created by SARS would affect foreign investments and international economic transactions."

However, that reaction has backfired, McNally said.

SARS' spread to Hong Kong and beyond has alarmed the international community, he said, noting that businessmen, investors and technicians are unwilling to travel to Guangdong.

Most other countries are taking precautionary measures, but there is potential for the epidemic to get out of control, especially if it sets foot in poorer counties of Africa and South Asia with relatively weak public health infrastructure, said Vinod Mishra, another East-West Center research fellow.

Signs indicate that with proper screening and quarantine, the disease can be contained, and scientists soon may find a test to diagnose it, said Mishra, a specialist on Asia population and health problems.

But in the meantime, SARS may cause considerable economic and public health damage, he said.

State Health Department
Centers for Disease Control
Hong Kong Department of Health


Team meets China
health experts to
find SARS source

Some victims may also have
a rare, airborne form of the
venereal disease chlamydia

By Audra Ang
Associated Press

GUANGZHOU, China >> An international team is finding possible clues to the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome as it tries to follow the disease's tracks across the bustling landscape of southern China.

Chinese experts in hard-hit Guangdong province told the scientists they have found a rare form of airborne chlamydia in some of their SARS patients, raising the possibility that more than one germ may be involved. Other Chinese cases suggest the disease might be passed by touching something tainted by a sick person's mucous or saliva.

SARS continued to spread yesterday even as health officials stepped up their efforts to contain the disease. New cases were reported in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, while Hong Kong reported three more deaths and 39 new cases, while Malaysia announced its first death.

In Hong Kong, workers covered head to toe in protective gear captured rats and roaches at an apartment complex where at least 250 people were infected. They also rounded up pets after a cat was found to carry a coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are commonly found in animals, but microbiologists believe SARS is caused by a new form of coronavirus. Scientists are trying to determine if animals somehow carried the virus through the complex.

Authorities at United Christian Hospital in Hong Kong announced yesterday that they would temporarily suspend all non-urgent services after more than 10 medical staff contracted the disease. The hospital has been one of the main care centers of SARS patients.

China responded yesterday to criticism of its handling of the outbreak by promising to create a disease warning system and keep its public better informed.

Vice Premier Wu Yi called for establishment of such a system "with emphasis placed on a public health information system," the official Xinhua News Agency and official newspapers said.

Wu's comments were the highest-level response yet to demands that the reflexively secretive communist government change how it handles such outbreaks. It followed an extraordinary apology Friday by the country's top disease-prevention official amid complaints that China released information too slowly.

The World Health Organization team met experts at Zhongshan University yesterday who collected hundreds of specimens of blood, lung fluid and other materials from people who died of SARS and those who recovered, said Dr. Robert Breiman, the team leader.

The team wants to map the spread of the disease in Guangdong. WHO suggested comparing samples to find out whether those who died fell victim to a combination of viruses or bacteria, not just one strain, Breiman said.

Chinese authorities say they found a rare, airborne form of chlamydia -- a virus usually transmitted through sexual contact -- in many who died.

The WHO specialists say a key part of their search will be to draw on knowledge of Chinese experts who know the region and physicians with experience treating SARS patients.

SARS has killed at least 85 people in Asia and Canada and sickened at least 2,200 in more than a dozen nations. Mainland China accounts for more than half the fatalities.

No cure has been found, though health officials say most sufferers recover with timely hospital care. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.

The WHO team said a key to the disease's speedy -- yet seemingly erratic -- transmission could lie in how the apparent first case, an unidentified businessman, passed it to four people without infecting his children. He survived and was released from the hospital in January.

The spread of SARS has disrupted air travel and forced the closure of schools, hospitals and businesses in many countries. Hong Kong's airport authority said 116 flights, one-fifth of all flights to the territory, were canceled yesterday.

State Health Department
Centers for Disease Control
Hong Kong Department of Health

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