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WHO pulls India off virus map

New Delhi, May 2: The Centre, goaded by the World Health Organisation, today said SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is yet to surface in India.

Over the past two weeks, the Union health ministry’s director-general of health services had dubbed at least 10 people as SARS patients, including the first case of a marine engineer in Goa.

WHO, however, rejected the tally, saying none of the 10 patients fit its definition of SARS. “All 10 cases showed mild clinical symptoms and none had pneumonia in their chest X-rays,” said Dr N. Kumara Rai, director, communicable diseases, WHO Southeast Asia Region.

According to the WHO criteria, a SARS patient has to have pneumonia in both lungs in addition to fever and travel history to an affected region or contact with an infected patient.

The Indian Medical Council Research joined the WHO in declaring India “free” from the dreaded virus. “We agree with the WHO definition that, barring a single Goa case, there has been no full-blown SARS case in India,” ICMR director-general N.K. Ganguly said at an informal meeting with the media here.

The health ministry and state authorities had relied on laboratory tests — designed to look for genetic residues of the SARS virus in blood, sputum, and urine of patients — to put out its tally of 10.

A senior ministry official today said the blood tests only established the fact that the patients were exposed to the virus. “We are absolutely certain about this. Each of the 10 patients have been infected with this virus,” he said. “But they did not have pneumonia.”

“I think it is important for people to understand the difference between a plain infection with SARS virus and the full-blown SARS disease,” said Dr Pradeep Seth, head of microbiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.

Ganguly said much the same thing. “We have to differentiate between infection and disease,” he said. “That is why we distinguish between an HIV-infected and an AIDS patient. It is not necessary that all the people infected with SARS coronavirus will develop the full blown disease.”

One of the reasons for the confusion, he said, lies in the fact that the disease is new and “all of us were learning along the way”.

WHO had initially listed India as a country with SARS patients. But on April 30, it pulled India out of the list, saying none of its patients fitted its definition of SARS infection.

Neither the health organisation nor government officials, however, were able to explain how the health ministry had got its SARS cases certified earlier by the WHO.

“The health ministry never said the cases were of full-blown SARS,” Ganguly said. The infected people are dubbed SARS suspects — those who show the symptoms — but they need not develop pneumonia, he said.

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