Do We Face a Global Quarantine?
By Rahul Goswami
Thousands of cases of a new and potentially lethal form of pneumonia have been reported in the past few weeks, but while the disease spreads, experts are realizing how little they know about the virus that causes it.
SINGAPORE, (Tierramérica).- With two young children confined to the home, Lily Ang has her hands full as she tries to juggle keeping them occupied and maintaining her part-time job. "It's hard, but nothing is worth the risk of them catching the bug," she says.
The “bug” is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Ang’s children are among the 600,000 students staying home from school in Singapore after officials announced the shutdown beginning Mar 27.
The last time this was done on such a scale on this Asian island was in 1958, when 250,000 students stayed home during a particularly virulent poliomyelitis outbreak.
Parents support the government’s move. And with good reason. Singapore, with 95 cases of SARS reported so far, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is among the group of countries at greatest risk of seeing the mysterious illness spread.
In Asia it is joined by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the special administrative region of Hong Kong, and by Canada in the Americas.
Worldwide, 2,223 people had been infected and 78 had died of SARS as of Apr 2. Initially dubbed “atypical pneumonia”, its symptoms include high fever, dry cough, respiratory difficulties and muscle pain.
"It is the worst medical disaster I have ever seen," Sydney Chung Sheung-chee, Dean of Medicine at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, said in an interview with a local newspaper.
By Apr 2 the WHO recorded 708 cases of SARS and at least 11 deaths in Hong Kong.
It is "a war against an unknown enemy,” Chung said.
The WHO recommends against travel to Hong Kong or to Guangdong, China, to avoid contact with or propagation of the illness.
After overcoming Beijing’s hesitations, the United Nations health agency was able to send a research team to cities in Guangdong – the southern Chinese province believed to be the origin of the virus – in search of clues and information that might help find a cure to the potentially lethal disease.
The WHO team is attempting to corroborate the theory that the virus is transmitted to humans by animals.
In China, this new type of pneumonia has killed 45 people and infected 1,190 others, according to WHO figures.
Initial investigations show that the first SARS outbreak occurred in Guangdong in November, then was spread to Hong Kong, and ultimately infected people in Australia, France and Canada.
China’s health minister Zhang Wenkan tried to calm fears, assuring that the authorities in his country had the epidemic under control.
In South America, health officials in Brazil reported a presumed case of SARS last week: British journalist who arrived in Sao Paulo from Malaysia.
There and in many other countries, emergency measures have been implemented to prevent the disease from entering national territory.
Singapore’s health minister Lim Hng Kiang on Mar 24 ordered a period of in-home quarantine for the 740 infected individuals. A fine of 2,800 dollars awaits anyone who violates the quarantine.
This tough stance has been emulated by Hong Kong, where more than a thousand people suspected of having contracted the illness were ordered secluded. Classes were suspended for a million students.
London-based world health writer Robert Walgate told Tierramérica that "the medical community is mystified by China's foot-dragging in dealing either with WHO or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control."
Since mid-March, as the “super-pneumonia” eluded definition, reports multiplied about the possible transmission of the virus on ships and aircraft.
With the heavily trafficked airlines over Asia -- China’s three aviation groups alone have more than 1,350 routes -- health officials in the region know what they were up against.
* Rahul Goswami is an IPS correspondent.