The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Battle against virus and panic
- Scare feeds on second suspect

Calcutta, April 27: As the Bengal government began a damage-control exercise to check the wave of panic triggered by the state’s first confirmed SARS case, a second suspect — with “unmistakable” symptoms — landed at the airport today. Jamil Ahmed of Watgunj, returning from Hong Kong and Bangladesh, was detected ill at the airport.

Asitabha Purakayastha — the first person from the city to have tested positive for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — continued to be “stable” at the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) but the good news was largely negated by the realisation that the earlier lapses may have led others to be infected, something that cannot be confirmed at least for the next 10 days.

The health department brass, including director of health services Prabhakar Chatterjee, did a round of all three healthcare institutes touched by Purakayastha — AMRI, north Calcutta’s Sunflower Nursing Home and Beliaghata’s state-run Infectious Diseases (ID) Hospital — and met in the afternoon to have a plan in place for tackling the disease.

The confused response of the government, however, came through with health department officials and doctors in Calcutta admitting that Purakayastha had shown “several” SARS symptoms while health minister Surjya Kanta Mishra maintained in Purulia that he did not have any of the physical symptoms of a SARS patient. “We can’t, therefore, say whether it is a positive SARS case,” Mishra said.

Purakayastha, who touched down at the city airport on April 19 after a tour of China and Southeast Asia, was first admitted to Sunflower Nursing Home with a cardiac condition. But with SARS-like symptoms coming up, he was admitted to the ID Hospital. There, however, his cardiac state played up again and Purakayastha — apparently without the health department’s knowledge — was admitted to AMRI by his family.

Then followed a series of goof-ups that, according to experts in the field, could have resulted in Purakayastha spreading the virus to others, most particularly the healthcare workers who handled him directly. The health department lost track of the patient for two whole days (between April 22 and 24) and, even after locating him at AMRI, waited for two more days before owning up to the hospital management that he was a SARS suspect.

“We informed the AMRI management of Purakayastha’s status only on Saturday after getting the positive result from Pune’s Institute of Virology,” Chatterjee admitted. He refused to explain why this had not been done earlier. Experts said there was time enough for Purakayastha to infect others.

“Anyone who comes in close contact with a SARS patient during the period when the outward symptoms are yet to manifest themselves stands a reasonable chance of getting infected,” School of Tropical Medicine director Jayashree Mitra said.

Though doctors said not everyone who came in touch with Purakayastha would get the disease, they admitted that droplets of cough or sneeze from an infected person — on even telephones and utensils — could, if touched by others, give them the infection.

The health minister said there was no reason for panic. “Though the antibody in the blood serum collected from Purakayastha tested positive at the Pune institute, the symptoms showed by him do not match World Health Organisation-provided SARS conditions,” he said.

In Calcutta, health department officials decided that every teaching hospital in the city would have 10 beds reserved for potential SARS victims. ID Hospital, too, geared up to battle SARS more effectively with a cardiac monitor and ventilator to treat patients like Purakayastha who had to be shifted elsewhere because of the heart attack he suffered even as his body was battling SARS.

The Purakayastha family will be kept in isolation and observed for the next 10 days. “I have also asked the AMRI authorities to carefully monitor the patients who shared the intensive therapy unit with Purakayastha and report the slightest SARS symptoms,” Chatterjee said, adding that their blood could be tested by the Institute of Virology.

Samples of Jamil Ahmed’s blood are also being sent there. Ahmed, who arrived here this afternoon with SARS symptoms, was whisked away to ID Hospital.

All incoming passengers from SARS-affected nations like China and Hong Kong, who went there after November 1, will be carefully screened at the airport if they show any of the SARS symptoms. Senior health officials are going to meet all chief medical officers of health, hospital superintendents, Airports Authority of India and Calcutta Port Trust officials for a review of the situation on April 30.

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