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Virus panic has blocked common sense plans

Washington, April 29 (Reuters): People around the world are overreacting to SARS, creating a sense of panic that could overwhelm common sense measures for containing the virus, top AIDS experts said yesterday.

Sensational media coverage of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed 326 people worldwide, has fanned the flames, said David Baltimore, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on how viruses cause disease.

“I think there has been overreaction,” Baltimore, a leading AIDS researcher who is now president of the California Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview.

“I have to agree with that,” added Dr David Ho, another top AIDS expert who heads the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre in New York.

“Obviously, the fear comes from the fact that this is a novel disease. Many aspects of this epidemic are still mysterious. Fear of SARS is outrunning SARS per se,” Ho added.

Ho and Baltimore ought to know. AIDS kills virtually everyone it infects without treatment and 20 years into the AIDS epidemic there is no cure and no vaccine. In contrast, 94 per cent of SARS patients recover.

Baltimore said World Health Organisation moves have been appropriate, such as the controversial recommendation against travel to Toronto, where 21 people have died from SARS.

But boycotts of Chinese-owned businesses and scenes of people walking the streets of Hong Kong wearing surgical masks show that the general public does not understand the real dangers, Baltimore said.

“As much as overreaction, there has been a lack of balance, of putting it into perspective, because it is a real problem, no question,” Baltimore said.

“But people clearly have reacted to it with a level of fear that is incommensurate with the size of the problem and I think it is getting in the way of a reasonable response.”

The government in China, where SARS appears to have originated late last year, has been criticised for covering up the initial outbreak — but officials there have said they feared creating the sort of panic that has been seen. “The Chinese government was totally irresponsible in covering it up,” Baltimore said. “We can’t get away from that. It is a demonstration of the value of openness.”

WHO has praised Vietnam for its response — which was to immediately call for international help in handling its own outbreak of SARS.

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