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Virus touches shore at tourist hotspot

Panaji, April 17: India’s first SARS case has been found in tourist hotspot Goa, with a 32-year-old marine engineer testing positive for the deadly virus.

The Pune-based National Institute of Virology said their lab had confirmed that Prasheel Varde, who visited Hong Kong and Singapore in end-March, was infected.

After putting out the news in the morning, the Goa government later scrambled to control the damage. It was “not possible to say with full certainty” that the tourist destination was home to the country’s first SARS patient, it argued.

There was a “mismatch between the clinical findings and the laboratory findings”, the government claimed.

Chief minister Manohar Parrikar, who had announced that the marine engineer was infected with the SARS virus, said in the evening that he and health minister Suresh Amonkar were calling for a second test. The Delhi-based National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) would be approached to conduct the test.

The patient was being “considered cured” pending reconfirmation, the state government added. Two NICD experts were in Goa to see Varde later this evening.

The announcement of the country’s first SARS case both by the Goa government and Union health minister Sushma Swaraj this morning triggered widespread panic.

But Dr S.K. Satpathy, additional director of the NICD, played down chances of an epidemic in India. “There’s little likelihood of a spread. Why should there be an epidemic' We have got one case after a month. Even that needs to be investigated fully.”

Analysts said the economy could suffer if more cases were reported.

“It is a big red flag at the moment and bears are watching to see if there are more cases reported,” said Maulik Sharedalal, director at Kaji & Maulik Securities in Mumbai. Unconfirmed reports said stocks of some Goa hotels have already been hit.

Varde belongs to the central Goa village of Dhavali, around 15 km from here. He had sailed to Hong Kong around March 26, reached Singapore on March 30 and was back in Goa on April 1. He had fever on April 8, went to see a doctor in Vasco the next day and was admitted to the state’s tertiary hospital, the Goa Medical College Hospital.

On April 11, Varde’s body fluid samples were sent to the National Institute of Virology in Pune because Goa lacks advanced testing facilities. As 48 hours lapsed without his fever recurring, officials cited WHO guidelines for his discharge from hospital. But the report from Pune showed he had tested positive.

“The patient had a fever of 100 F, which is not considered high. He had no other signs or symptoms of SARS as laid down by WHO, which are cough, shortness of breath and difficulty in breathing,” a government press release said.

“However, since he was in countries included by WHO as being countries affected/reported with SARS, the Goa Medical College Hospital by way of abundant precaution decided to keep him in the isolation room,” it added. The hospital was safe for other patients, the government stressed.

Varde was not suffering from any clinical symptoms of SARS and appeared to be hale and hearty. “He is otherwise perfectly normal,” the release said.

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