The first global epidemic of the 21st century

Steve Connor
Saturday 01 February 2014 05:03
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A hospital in China is surrounded by police, officials in Toronto meet in emergency session and airline chiefs discuss the billion-dollar losses from the collapse of international travel – welcome to the first global epidemic of the 21st century.

Panic was spreading as fast as the virus responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) as governments and health authorities around the world struggled yesterday to contain public anxiety over a disease that has so far killed 264 people and infected thousands more.

In Britain, the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, resisted intense pressure to make Sars a notifiable disease alongside cholera and smallpox, a measure that would allow health authorities to detain people suspected of being infected.

Sir Liam said that all six cases in Britain have so far been detected quickly and brought under control and there is no need, at the moment, to introduce further draconian measures.

"We are in very, very close daily contact with the World Health Organisation and the other countries involved and, far from being feeble and complacent, we are working very, very hard," Sir Liam said.

The WHO has warned travellers not to visit Toronto, the only epicentre of the virus outside Asia, as well as Beijing and Hong Kong, and the provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi in China where the Sars virus is thought to have originated.

City officials in Toronto reacted with horror as they witnessed a collapse in confidence among tourists and business people who had planned to visit the Canadian city. They warned the WHO to "get its facts straight".

"Let me be clear. If it's safe to live in Toronto, it's safe to come to Toronto. I dare them [the WHO] to be here tomorrow," said Mel Lastman, the city's Mayor.

In China, which was criticised for not acting early enough on Sars, government officials took dramatic action to impose rigorous quarantine conditions on those suspected of being infected.

Police sealed off a 1,200-bed hospital in Beijing where medical staff are being treated in order to prevent further spread of the virus. "No one is allowed to enter or leave. There are police and security guards outside," said one hospital official.

The hospital is not one of those set aside to treat Sars patients but it has at least 60 confirmed or suspected cases among nurses and doctors – a feature of the virus is its ability to strike those who care for infected people.

Since the virus first began to spread in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong last November it has affected 4,600 people worldwide, mostly in south-east Asia but also in Canada where 330 cases are suspected or have been confirmed.

In India, officials reported the first four cases and the government ordered airport workers to wear face masks and to screen people entering international airports. Of the four cases, one has recovered and the other three are in isolation wards. Two other people have been isolated in hospitals in Delhi and the western state of Maharashtra on suspicion of being infected with the virus.

"All the states are geared up and are taking the disease with the seriousness which it deserves. After the meeting with officials, we are more confident we can tackle this," said India's Health Minister, Sushma Swaraj.

In Singapore, one of the first countries outside China to experience the disease, the toll rose to 17 deaths and two further suspected cases. Officials said yesterday that all visitors to the city state would have their temperature checked.

Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, said: "We have to muster all our resolve and resources in order to fight Sars. Then we can bring the outbreak under control, restore confidence and get the economy moving.

"If we fail to do so, and allow the disease to overwhelm us, the consequences will be catastrophic," he added.

In Taiwan, a hospital was closed off in the capital, Taipei, after city officials said that a further 16 people may have become infected.

Hong Kong officials announced the quarantine net there is being widened to include people exposed or suspected of being infected, as well as confirmed cases. They also said that 30 more infections have been confirmed, taking the total in the city to 1,488.

British travellers returning to Heathrow described the "terrifying" panic caused by Sars in the Far East. Passengers arriving at Terminal 4 from Beijing – many wearing or clutching face masks – said the disease was dominating daily life in China.

Sandra Perry, a school secretary from Sutton, Surrey, who entered the arrivals hall still wearing her face mask, said she was frightened and thought that screening measures in the UK should be tightened up.

"I think Beijing have been too late and everybody is now in panic mode, swabbing everything down with bleach. Everybody was wearing masks... If we get a few more cases, we have to screen," Ms Perry said.

Elsewhere in Europe, concern about Sars also began to affect daily life. A couple in Brussels were asked to hold their wedding ceremony outside the city hall after fears that the Chinese bride might have caught Sars on a recent trip to the Far East.

The pen used by the newlyweds to sign their marriage certificate was thrown away and staff washed their hands straight after the ceremony. The registrar, Eric Sax, declined to shake hands with the couple afterwards.

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