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Salvage scurry in SARS shadow
Timeout sparks dread over virus spread

Could Asitabha Purakayastha have passed on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus to all those who had come within shouting distance of him over the past week, in more than one medical clinic, till he was finally isolated on Saturday evening' That was the one question haunting Calcuttans the day news of the city’s first SARS patient spread like a virus.

City-based medical experts feel it is “likely” that Purakayastha may have passed on the virus to “some of the people” with whom he came into “close contact” over the past eight days. But, say doctors, not everyone who interacted with the patient would have contracted the infection.

Doctors trace Asitabha’s infection back to his extensive travel through China and Hong Kong before reaching Mumbai.

“The first 10 days of contracting the infection is the asymptomatic period, when a patient does not show any outward symptoms of the disease. But he harbours the virus in his body. Anybody who comes into close contact with him during this period stands a reasonable chance of getting infected,” explained Jayshree Mitra, director of the School of Tropical Medicine.

That, however, does not mean that everyone coming close to the patient will be affected, as the immune system of each human being varies from the other. The SARS virus, which has been identified as part of the deadly coronavirus family, can spread through sneezing, coughing and the consequent droplets that fall on objects around the patient.

A person can also contract the disease by touching these infected objects and then touching one’s eyes, nose or mouth without having washed his hands. It is generally believed that infection can be contracted by persons coming within three feet of the patient.

Doctors feel that in order to trace those who may have been infected by Purakayastha, they should track down and keep tabs on all those who came in contact with the SARS patient ever since he landed in the city.

In the case of Asitabha, doctors feel that immediately after landing in the city, he did not show any outward symptoms because the virus was “still in the incubation period”. Going by world SARS statistics, his family members who spent the night with Purakayastha on April 19 have “a reasonable chance” of being infected by the virus.

“One must understand that even if Purakayastha’s infectious droplets had fallen on a particular utensil, telephone or any object, which had been touched by anybody else, there is a good chance of infection,” said Dr Aloke Chatterjee, a specialist in respiratory diseases.

According to WHO, the virus stays alive outside the body for three to six hours and can be contracted by anyone who comes into contact with it within this period.

Doctors feel that the fact that health workers have emerged as the single largest section of society to be infected by SARS, the doctors and nurses who attended to Purakayastha at a local nursing home in Shyambazar and then at Beleghata Infectious Diseases Hospital, on April 20-21, ran the risk of infection, unless they had followed all precautions as recommended by WHO.

This includes wearing masks and gloves while attending to the patient.

City doctors also refute the government’s claim that Purakayastha was no longer a risk to other patients, since he had most probably crossed the incubation period. “There is no way the government can say when he actually got infected and when the incubation period will get over,” said Dr Chatterjee.

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