Thursday, November 06, 2003

SARS: the shrinking epidemic

If the Aurora 'virus ship' panic was SARS-as-farce, recent figures have shown that even SARS was not the epidemic it was cracked up to be.

Reports from China on 27 October suggest that the number of SARS cases in the southern province of Guangdong was overstated. It was originally thought that there had been 1274 cases, but blood tests showed that only 1062 had SARS, the rest being pneumonia or flu cases (1). In Taiwan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has revised the number of deaths down from 180 to just 37, because many of those originally listed had died from another cause while suffering from SARS (2). In Hong Kong, the reaction to SARS may have led to persistence with an ineffective treatment, with dangers of its own. According to Reuters: 'Almost all SARS patients in Hong Kong were treated with the anti-viral drug ribavirin and steroids earlier this year, but many health experts said at the time the efficacy of the NEWCOLUMN combination was unproven and could lead to serious side-effects.' (3) Now, some patients are reportedly suffering from avascular necrosis, a bone-weakening disease associated with steroids.

When the SARS epidemic was first declared in March 2003, the WHO talked about a 'worldwide health threat', and press reports speculated wildly about how many might die. There have been no new cases since June 2003 and the WHO now states that were just over 8000 cases with 774 deaths, the vast majority in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan - roughly the same as the annual TB figures for Hong Kong alone. The lesson seems to be that it is wise for everyone concerned to ignore the hype and take a measured approach based on medical facts, not doomsday scenarios.

(1) SARS cases reported misdiagnosed in China, Guardian, 27 October 2003

(2) Taiwan hails WHO for axing SARS death toll to 37 from 180, Agence France-Press, 1 October 2003

(3) SARS drugs tied to bone disease, MSNBC, 10 October 2003

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