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Shield against virus stigma

Mumbai April 29: The Maharashtra health department has announced that it will no longer give out the names of people suspected of suffering from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Health minister Digvijay Khanvilkar said the step was being taken to “save those afflicted by the virus from social stigma”. “The decision has been taken in view of the enormous social difficulties being faced by both suspected and confirmed cases. If names are given out, the entire family faces stigma and neighbours begin to point fingers,” Khanvilkar added.

“The ignorance (about SARS) is a bit too much at this point and people are being unnecessarily nasty towards the victims,” a doctor said. “The trauma is far greater than the affliction.”

Doctors said the decision was taken at a high-level meeting “after much thought”. “SARS is not AIDS,” they said. “What is the patient’s fault if he or she gets the respiratory disease' We will disclose other details but not names.”

The decision follows protests by neighbours of the D’Silva family in Pune and Ambernath. The D’Silvas — Julie, Stanley and Vimla — were the first SARS-positive cases reported in the state. Old acquaintances turned against the D’Silvas and the family of Joseph Pawar — in whose Pune house they stayed for a while — by staging a dharna and blocking traffic demanding the family’s removal from Kumar Colony.

Residents said they had been ostracised by colleagues in office because they lived in the colony which housed the SARS patients. Either you drive them away or arrange for an alternative accommodation for us, scores of Kumar Park residents screamed at health department doctors who went there on Sunday to take stock of the situation.

“The situation was very bad and painful for the D’Silvas and the Pawars. We had to send the director-general of health services, Dr Subhash Salunke, to convince the residents that the family members had now tested negative for SARS,” Khanvilkar said.

The health department has now refused to reveal the name of a sailor in Ratnagiri, the latest SARS suspect in the state. “He is a sailor who had come from the Philippines,” was all the doctors concerned would say.

The health department’s resolve was fortified after hearing that Bhaskar Murthy, a SARS patient who left the Kasturba hospital here and took a flight to New Delhi on Sunday, repeatedly complained that the identities of SARS suspects were not being protected. In fact, it turned out to be a major reason why Murthy scooted from the hospital, putting in trouble the doctors attending to him.

The efforts to calm the D’Silvas’ neighbours will be put to test soon as the D’Silvas and Pawar were discharged from Pune’s Naidu hospital today. Doctors said they had “fully recovered”.

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