Saturday, July 05, 2003

SARS update

The WHO has given the all-clear in Taiwan, the last country to be affected by SARS. This is not the end of SARS, but merely containment, apparently.

I've made my criticisms of the WHO clear on this site before, but this latest news confirms them. This is what I wrote on spiked on 19 March 2003, just after the epidemic was made public:

This is just the latest in a long line of weird and wonderful illnesses to briefly burst on to the front pages, only to disappear just as rapidly: remember Ebola virus, MRSA and necrotising fasciitis? All of these diseases are nasty, but they affect relatively few people. The fact that such stories can gain currency is indicative of a time when we feel isolated and powerless, unable to put risks into proper perspective - a mood that is exacerbated by thoughts of war and terrorism. Infectious disease is not quite a thing of the past, but our ability to identify, contain and treat such illness makes it a relatively minor threat. What is more of a threat is our loss of faith in our ability to deal with such problems.

Three-and-a-half months later, I think that initial assessment was borne out. While SARS went on to kill over 800 people, that is a minor problem in comparison to much more long-standing diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. But the worldwide attention that SARS received did indicate a generalised sense of anxiety in which human capabilities are downplayed and risk is exaggerated.

In reality, SARS was dealt with effectively by well-organised public health measures, combined with a pleasing level of co-operation between experts around the world. However, the SARS panic did succeed in creating unnecessary anxiety, cost many jobs, restricted economic growth and disrupted lives. The WHO can take much of the credit for the success, and much of the blame for the panic.

Last Sars hotspot contained, BBC News, 5 July 2003


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