|Saturday, 19 April 2003|
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Tackling the SARS outbreak
It came like a bolt from the blue and there is no sign yet that it would go out in the same fashion. It has sprung on an unsuspecting world, claiming hundreds of precious lives in a short period. From Australia to Brazil to Sweden, the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has swept across the globe, targeting rich and poor nations alike.
The AIDS epidemic apart, no other disease has spread around the world in so brief a period of time.
This viral disease, similar to pneumonia, first appeared last November in China and began to spread internationally through travellers early this year.
The disease is suspected of infecting more than 3,600 people worldwide and causing over 160 deaths. SARS patients show unusual symptoms including high fever, difficulty in breathing and a dry cough. Doctors still do not have a specific test for SARS, but labs around the world are close to developing one.
The SARS outbreak proves very clearly that the world is still susceptible to new diseases in spite of the vast advances in medical science and health technology.
Ironically, another modern phenomenon - air travel - has been cited as the main culprit for the rapid spread of the affliction. Air transport has shrunk the world. An infected person can travel from his country to another in a matter of hours. No one anywhere is really safe.
Sri Lanka can count itself among the lucky countries which have not reported SARS cases so far. Around eight patients showing symptoms similar to those of SARS were screened and discharged after they were diagnosed with other, non life-threatening illnesses.
However, given the nature of the illness and its method of transmission, we should not scale down our defences. Authorities should heighten surveillance at all entry points and especially screen passengers from the highly affected countries. If a reliable SARS test becomes available soon, health authorities should get it down without delay.
Hospitals, public and private, should be geared fully to meet any contingency. The media should be used extensively to disseminate information on SARS, as thousands of Lankans travel abroad daily.
All these should be implemented as soon as possible, because the cost of complacency could be astronomical. We too, like some of our regional neighbours who have reported SARS cases, depend heavily on tourism and labour migration. Any negative effect on these vital segments of the economy could indeed be very unhealthy for our country.
All is not lost, however. The world is fighting back. Health authorities around the world have joined hands to combat this scourge. The most encouraging news so far is that scientists in Singapore, US and Canada, with the backing of the World Health Organisation, have broken the genetic code of the SARS virus, raising hopes of developing a proper diagnostic test, a vaccine and a cure.
A cure may not be unattainable, as Man has tamed a number of previously deadly diseases and even eradicated some altogether. Smallpox is a good example. Vaccines and effective medicines are available for many other serious diseases. Of course, there is no guarantee that a cure may eventually be available for SARS - AIDS and cancer cannot still be cured completely and permanently after decades of medical research.
While the world literally holds its breath for an effective cure, the pictures streaming across our TV screens of men, women and children wearing masks to evade an invisible enemy remind us once again how vulnerable we are. Man is powerful, but Nature is supreme.
Produced by Lake House