The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Virus patient well, Goa tourism restive

Panaji, April 18: India’s most high-profile patient, Prasheel Borkar Varde, left the Goa Medical College this evening after hitting the headlines on being found to be suffering from the panic-causing pneumonia virus.

“The patient has been discharged,” Rina Ray, Goa’s health secretary said. “After ascertaining his health status, the doctors decided he has no clinical symptoms of SARS.”

“It appears to be a very mild attack. His is not the spreading type (of SARS),” said Parrikar. “In any case, he’s no more infective,” said chief minister Manohar Parikkar.

Varde, a marine engineer who had visited Hong Kong and Singapore, was being “considered cured” yesterday itself. But news of the first confirmed case of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in the country had spread panic and punctured the Union government’s claim that foolproof scanning was on at ports and airports to identify carriers of the virus.

The news of Varde’s illness was met here by initial bravado, followed by denials and then concern that the tourism industry could be left gasping by the negative publicity the first confirmed case of SARS in the country might have generated.

The panic was unwittingly fuelled by high-profile press conferences called by the chief minister here and Union health minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi.

Goa tourism had suffered in the nineties when there were reports of a “plague” stalking Gujarat. Though Gujarat was away from Goa, reports about the epidemic in “western India” had affected international tourist inflows.

Besides, the SARS shock has come just when Goa was recovering from an embarrassing moment when nine tourists drowned while visiting the state from Andhra for a conference organised by an insecticide company.

The government’s publicity wing tried to control the damage today by claiming that that the “SARS scare” had receded “following the announcement” by the chief minister that the patient was being discharged.

The wing claimed that the “tourism trade is looking forward to a booming season of domestic tourist arrivals in the following couple of months”.

The government also sought comfort in the fact that so far, there has been “no international alert warning people not to visit India or Goa, in particular”. Therefore, it said, there have been no cancellations of tourist bookings.

The state has, however, announced that checks would be strengthened at Goa’s port and airport “as a measure of abundant caution”.

The government said “the impression gaining ground” is that the SARS alarm “has been positive in the sense that it has led to the creation of a greater awareness in the state. It also dispelled fears and apprehensions in the minds of the people about the disease”.

The chief minister earlier today said the 32-year-old SARS patient would be discharged “subject to the concurrence of the Union ministry of health”.

The two joint directors of the Delhi-based National Institute of Communicable Diseases will return to the capital with samples from “five or six” persons, including close family members and medical staff who attended on Varde.

“I don’t think there’s anything to panic about. This is a new pathogen. Probably, it takes time to fully understand it,” said Dr Sunil Gupta, one of the joint directors.

The state government said it had “notified” SARS as a communicable disease on April 7 through the state gazette as an “infectious disease”. This places the onus on any medical practitioner treating such a case to immediately alert the state health authorities.

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