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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 April, 2003, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Race to contain deadly virus
By Bethan Jinkinson
BBC, Geneva

When the World Health Organisation issued a 15 March global alert on the mystery pneumonia-type illness emerging from Asia, the response was unprecedented.

At the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, staff were inundated with calls and e-mails, mainly from concerned travellers wanting advice on whether to cancel travel plans.

Manila airport advice, Philippines
The virus is spreading alarm across Asia
Receiving thousands of e-mails and working up to 16 hours a day, staff were treading a fine line between keeping the world informed and trying not to engender panic.

Two weeks later, and with the death toll still rising, the disease, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), is continuing to cause immense concern to the WHO and governments across the world.

On Wednesday, the WHO issued a second advisory, suggesting tourists and businesspeople should delay visiting Hong Kong and China's southern province of Guangdong, where the virus is thought to have first appeared last November.

Although the mortality rate from the disease is only 4%, and the numbers of deaths are low compared to other global killers such as diarrhoea or malaria, the WHO has stuck by the decision to issue a global alert, the first in the organisation's history.

"We were facing a new disease, which was disproportionately affecting healthcare workers," said Dick Thompson, Communications Officer at the WHO.

"We decided that we had to get the alert out, otherwise hospitals around the world would have been attacked by the virus," he said.

The origins of the virus are still unproven.

But China's role appears to be key.

"China has a unique environmental situation," Mr Thompson said.

"It has an almost constant influenza season, with many people living in close proximity with animals like poultry or swine.

"This creates almost perfect conditions for a virus to mutate and jump the species barrier, from animals to humans," he said.

Rapid spread

Although the Chinese outbreak has not been proven to be the source of the outbreaks in other countries, it is now looking extremely likely.

It is better to be overcautious and then review at a later date, than to deny that there is a problem and then suffer the consequences
Dick Thompson, WHO

The man who it is believed to have taken the virus to Hong Kong had recently visited Guangdong.

Staying in room 911 of Hong Kong's Metropole Hotel, he infected many guests on his floor.

One theory said he may have infected others in a crowded lift, but scientists are still not certain whether the disease is airborne, or is spread through droplets such as those expelled when sneezing.

Scientists have established that the virus is almost certainly part of the family of 'corona' viruses.

The almost unprecedented speed at which this was established is due, Mr Thompson said, to co-operation between scientific researchers, particularly in Hong Kong.

Normally researchers, keen to secure research grants and lucrative patent deals, keep breakthroughs closely guarded secrets.

But the speed at which Sars was spreading meant scientists quickly developed an unprecedented collaborative network in order to establish the cause of the infections.

Scientists may be working together, desperately trying to find a cure. But diplomatic negotiations between the WHO and governments have not been as straightforward.

China has been widely criticised for being slow to acknowledge the seriousness of the infection, and to co-operate with outside experts.

Tourism fears

The issue is also sensitive in countries where tourism contributes greatly to the economy.

Thailand was initially thought to be harbouring several people infected with the disease, and was included on the list of countries that the WHO advised travellers to be vigilant towards.

After protests from the Thai government, however, Thailand was removed from the list.

Since then, two people have died from the disease, although they are believed to have contracted it overseas.

In China, monitoring and surveillance of the outbreak was made difficult by the size of the country.

Dealing with the disease on a provincial level was much more difficult than, for example, the tiny city state of Singapore.

Although critics have branded Singapore's quarantine measures draconian, Mr Thompson believes it was an appropriate response.

"It is better to be overcautious and then review at a later date, than to deny that there is a problem and then suffer the consequences," he said.

China only started providing up-to-date electronic reports on suspected Sars cases on March 28.

Despite the mounting death toll, Mr Thompson believes that the outlook globally is not so bleak.

He expects that as countries implement heightened surveillance measures and co-operate effectively with the WHO, the spread of the disease will be contained.

However, with the ease of international air travel and the increased migration, it is likely that Sars will be the first of many new viruses which will cause concern.

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