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OUT OF ASIA

The world is beginning to sit up to the outbreak of a severe acute respiratory syndrome in a number of countries. This serious pneumonia-like disease originated in southern China last year. It has gone on to cause deaths — the toll has now reached 100, with almost 3,000 people infected — in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand and Canada. Cases have been confirmed in many other countries, mostly among people who had travelled to the affected areas in Asia. An American tourist in Mumbai, just back from the high-risk southeast Asian countries, has been showing the SARS symptoms. The World Health Organization has recommended that persons travelling to Hong Kong and the Guangdong province of China should “consider postponing all but essential travel”. Although it is not quite clear how the virus spreads, it appears that SARS has a low death rate (below 4 per cent), a high rate of recovery and a relatively restricted infection rate. Its low incubation period and the speed of modern air travel have ensured the spread of the syndrome around the world. There is neither a vaccine nor a specific treatment, although antibiotics and antiviral treatments have been used to combat the symptoms. The currently available viral detection test for SARS is useful in the early stages of infection, but produces false negatives.

Both China and Hong Kong have been blamed for not cooperating initially with the WHO, and for playing down the seriousness of the situation. But they are responding now to the gravity of the situation, while the WHO has emphasized the role of global cooperation and openness in controlling the outbreak. Going into bureaucratic denial and defensiveness is the last thing to do in such situations. Singapore seems to have been the most prompt in implementing strict infection control measures. The WHO also maintains that infection control methods work to contain the spread of SARS in hospitals, even in countries which do not have the most modern equipment. Being informed, alert and prompt with quarantine and treatment is the best attitude India could adopt, without spreading undue alarm.

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