Global scare dissolves with the end of SARS
Toronto got the all-clear Wednesday; Taipei is set to win a clean bill of health Saturday.
The surgical masks are gone. Now a weekend stroll down Singapore's Orchard Road - a three-mile stretch that serves as Southeast Asia's Rodeo Drive - is once again no easy task. Navigating the tide of humanity as it charges from store to store requires a deft touch to avoid collisions.Skip to next paragraph
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There is perhaps no better sign that the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the mysterious virus that emerged from southern China late last year, is over. In cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, and Shanghai, no new infections have been reported for weeks.
Toronto, one of the last two cities on the World Health Organization's (WHO) list of SARS hot spots, was removed from the list Wednesday, and Taipei is expected to be removed by Saturday.
"This is a great achievement for public health in what we hope is the final phase of the global emergency," David Heymann, WHO executive director for communicable diseases, said in a statement.
Though WHO officials say they are happy with the way the outbreak has been handled - and have learned lessons about the extent to which hospital workers can spread a disease worldwide - there are also indications that the risk of SARS was overblown.
To date, the disease has infected 8,445 people worldwide, yet fewer than 1 in 10 died as a result (see chart). The total number of deaths pales in comparison to other diseases.
In Singapore, for instance, 32 people have died from SARS, compared to roughly 1,800 deaths a year attributed to pneumonia. Compared to historical pandemics, SARS is even less fearsome. The global flu outbreak of 1918 was estimated to have killed more than 20 million people, and as recently as 1968, a flu pandemic that hit Hong Kong the hardest killed more than 33,000 people.
A big part of the reason SARS scared so many is that its causes were at first mysterious, and to scientists like Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, the WHO's Asia regional adviser, still remain perplexing.
Unlike the flu, SARS isn't transmitted through the air, doctors say. It requires more direct contact with bodily fluids for communication. That makes SARS difficult to catch and will probably make it easier to contain if it rears its head again.
Dr. Oshitani says that more than half of the people infected worldwide were either healthcare workers or people in close contact with healthcare workers, and better precautions will be taken to limit the spread of the disease should it recur.
"There is no ongoing large cluster of cases, anywhere in the world,'' says Dr. Oshitani. "But we still don't know some of the aspects of this disease, so we have to maintain our vigilance at least until the end of this year."
"We're confident that we can do much better next time,'' he adds.
The outbreak seems to have burned itself out almost everywhere at the same time, from city-states like Singapore that have been praised for its model response to the outbreak, to China, which sought to cover up the extent of the problem when it first emerged there. One of the reasons may be seasonal.