SARS: no cause for scare

The health authorities in the country, well-prepared to deal with any emergency situation, are more concerned over rumour mongers than the import of SARS into the UAE

By Hani M. Bathish, Zaigham Ali Mirza And Tarek S. Fleihan

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Published: Sat 3 May 2003, 12:21 PM

Last updated: Wed 1 Apr 2015, 10:58 PM

DUBAI - There is no cause for undue worry over the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) here. Not yet. 'People should first ask themselves if they have been to South East Asia recently or if they came in close contact with people from that region. If they have not, there is no need to panic', says Dr. Lana Badereddin, Head of the Disease Control Section at the UAE Ministry of Health.

'It is our duty is to take preventive measures at airports and ports and we monitor all flights from affected regions,' said Dr. Lana Badereddin, Head of the Disease Control Section at the UAE Ministry of Health. He urges people to go easy on SARS as long as there are no cases in the UAE.

Even as the region is free of the killer virus, sections of the general public appear concerned over the possible spread of the disease. Sensing the scenario, Health officials are currently utilising the tool of media to address the public and to allay their fears. For scientists, dealing with uncertainties is a daily challenge; and for the general public, the fact that so little is known about the disease is a cause for panic.

Dr Lana Badereddin says general precautions people can follow are general hygiene guidelines. This includes washing hands regularly, avoiding open sneezing (do it into tissue paper) and holding one's hand over one's mouth while sneezing.

'The virus scenario is just about evolving. Each day we discover something new about the disease, we do not know if it is evolving and mutating or not. Even modes of transmission are not defined. Some say SARS is transmitted by droplets and fluids'.

'Thirteen centres worldwide are currently studying the virology of SARS to find out if it is transmitted through blood, semen or stool. As long as we cannot determine the mode of transmittion, we cannot say anything definite, as previous predictions have proved wrong,' Dr. Badereddin said.

Appearing on a medical programme on Dubai TV recently, Dr. Badereddin said she was surprised by the extent of the fear and panic among the general public. Citing the reaction of one caller to the programme, she said: 'A pregnant woman called up at the programme and was in such a panic that she said she was sorry to bring a new life into the world only to die from SARS!', highlighting the widespread ignorance of this disease by the general public.

Hospitals prepared

Dr Abdel Ghaffar Abdel Ghafour, Assistant Undersecretary for Curative Medicine at the UAE Ministry of Health, said that isolation wards are already available at all public hospitals in the country. Health care staff are prepared to handle any suspect or probable case of SARS referred to them.

'We have instructed our doctors and medical staff to look out for high fever and other SARS-related symptoms in patients who have arrived from the affected countries. We keep suspected cases under observation in isolation wards for two to three day. We already have isolation facilities which we use for cases of tuberculosis,' Dr. Abdel Ghafour said.

He said any private hospital or clinic which detects a suspected case has to inform the preventive medicine department at the MoH, which will do the needful. Any SARS cases detected has to be referred immediately to public hospitals.

Dr. Adnan Julfar, Director of the Primary Health Care Department at the Dubai Department of Health and Medical Services, said unfounded rumours circulated about suspected cases of SARS in the country was a serious problem.

'It is not necessary now to wear masks in the streets or avoid going to shopping malls. These have no scientifically proven effect on limiting the spread of the disease. The disease is transmitted through intimate or close contact with an infected person. It is still unproven that rats, cockroaches or other animals can transmit the disease,' Dr. Julfar said.

Dr. Julfar called on the general public to use common sense in dealing with the current situation and to remember the fact that the healthcare authorities are always on the alert against such eventualities, and appropriate action would be taken at the right time. 'They are taking appropriate measures to ensure the SARS virus does not reach out to the UAE'.

'Our main concern is the spread of unfounded rumours. The disease shows signs of being contained in all countries except China. The Dohms has taken all necessary precautions several week ago. All our staff at clinics and hospitals as well as nurses in five star hotels have undergone awareness lectures. So have the staff at the ports and the airport. Now we are planning awareness lectures in schools as well,' Dr. Julfar said.

The Dohms has also launched a helpline for all information on 050-5500088.

No livestock link

A source at Sharjah Municipality said there is no epidemiological information yet to suggest that contact with livestock shipped from SARS-affected areas has been the source of SARS infection in humans. The source noted that the municipality would take action in case such speculations turn out to be true.

He said the civic body is monitoring the scientific and medical reports released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the affected countries, adding that a daily report highlighting the latest developments on the disease is being issued by the municipality.

'The General Secretariat of UAE Municipalities is the authority concerned to notify municipalities about hazardous situations affecting the safety of food items,' he acknowledged, noting that the Sharjah Municipality has not received anything in this regard so far.

The manager of a premium Chinese restaurant in Dubai, who spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity, brushed aside queries about the impact of the SARS scare on restaurants managed by expatriates from South East Asia and China.

'It is not correct to link a disease to a particular community or people. I understand that China and some other Asian countries have been affected by SARS, but so is Canada and the UK, and these countries have indigenous cases too,' he pointed out.

Eateries unaffected

'There has so far been no decline in the number of customers we receive everyday. We enjoy goodwill because of the quality of our food and the hygiene we maintain, and I think that is what most customers look for in any restaurant,' he commented. According to the manager, his restaurant is patronised by UAE nationals, expatriates from India, Philipines and several European countries.

'People here may be generally cautious about their health, but this part of the world has so far been safe from any SARS case. So I don't think there is any reason why one should keep off Chinese joints ,' commented the manager of another popular Chinese restaurant. He added that it is business as usual at his restaurant.

A. K. Moideen, an Indian taxi driver, felt that despite the hazard of exposure his profession entails, he has absolutely no fears. 'I will admit that after this SARS reports came in, I take note if a passenger sneezes in my car, but that is psychological,' he said.

Mr. Moideen pointed out that most of the small talk that he has with his passengers tends to revolve around SARS, mainly because of the faster dissemination of information through various sections of the media.

WHO help

The WHO web site, which can be accessed on www.who.int, offers comprehensive information on SARS, including a list of affected areas, precautions, sampling for diagnostic tests and clinical manifestations of the disease. SARS appears to be spreading most commonly by close person-to-person contact involving exposure to infectious droplets, and possibly by direct contact with infected body fluids. The etimologic agent responsible for the syndrome is a previously unknown coronavirus, currently called SARS coronavirus, or SARS-Co.

Most patients identified have been previously healthy adults aged between 25-70 years. The incubation period of SARS is usually two to seven days but it may extend upto 10 days. The illness generally begins with a fever of 38 degrees Celsius, some times associated by chills and rigours and some times by headache, malaise, and myalgias.

The current level of outbreak of SARS pales in comparison to the Influenza outbreak in Europe in 1918, in which 40 million people were believed to have died. A WHO Global Scientific Meeting on SARS has been scheduled for June 17 to 18 this year in Geneva. The meeting will review the epidemiological, clinical and laboratory findings on SARS and will discuss global control strategies.



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