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SARS: how bad is the threat?

This article is over 21 years, 0 months old
Paul McGarr diagnoses a severe case of media hype
Issue 1849

THE MEDIA has reacted in typical fashion to the SARS flu-like disease. Truth has been the casualty in a media frenzy driven by the need to sell newspapers, outdo rivals, and push particular ideological agendas over issues like racism. Some, headed by the Daily Mail, talk as though we were all about to be wiped out by SARS.

They warn of the ‘potentially catastrophic’ threat, of ‘disaster’ and dire consequences here unless the British government introduces draconian measures. Others, including columnists in the Guardian and Express, react against this and tell us that there is nothing to worry about, and that you are more likely to be killed falling down the stairs at home than catch SARS. The same pattern has marked media reaction to other serious new diseases, from AIDS to BSE, over the last 20 years.

When AIDS first appeared some in the media warned that a new plague was about to sweep most of humanity away. Others dismissed AIDS out of hand and railed against safe sex and other key measures to contain it – with Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Sunday Times leading the pack with this irresponsible nonsense.

SARS is undoubtedly serious and we should be worried. But what is the truth about the threat? Socialist and east London doctor Kambiz Boomla explains, ‘SARS appears to be what is called a corona virus. Normally this is one of the causes of the common cold. But this seems to be a new form, one which has transferred to humans from animals in the way that a lot of flu viruses have done.

‘It seems to spread by contact with respiratory secretions – snot and saliva. But it doesn’t seem to spread as easily as some other respiratory infections which are quickly transmitted by, for example, sneezing in the same room.

‘With SARS it seems the contact has to be much more direct – physical contact with someone or their respiratory secretions. ‘You have to be in close contact, not just in the same room or on an aeroplane.’ That does not mean the threat is not real.

‘SARS is serious. It is killing somthing like one in 150 people affected,’ explains Kambiz. ‘But you have to be clear on what the reality is and not misunderstand the problem you are dealing with.’

‘The key to containing a disease like this is that you need a very good public health infrastructure,’ argues Kambiz. ‘The people at the top of business and in governments across the world are worried.

‘Some of their motivation is financial – they fear the impact on business. The mayor of Toronto made clear exactly this when he attacked the World Health Organisation for advising people to avoid the city. ‘But governments in the West are reacting quite differently to, say, malaria, which kills far more people – around 3,000 children a day on the recent World Health Organisation figures.

‘The people who die from malaria are mostly poor and in the poorest countries. You don’t get malaria in the great centres of world capitalism. ‘And the rich in countries with malaria, along with the businessmen who visit these countries, can protect themselves. They have air conditioned offices, homes and hotels, as well as many preventive measures to limit their chances of getting malaria.

‘SARS is more like cholera was in cities like London in the 19th century. The rich can’t quarantine themselves off from it. If there was a SARS epidemic ravaging the poor areas, the rich would suffer too.

‘In the 19th century that reality led to public health measures against cholera in the industrialised countries. ‘Today with SARS a real worry is that if it spreads to poorer countries where basic health infrastructure is absent it could get much worse

‘If SARS was to get out of control in countries like China it would be difficult to stop it coming to Britain or elsewhere. If it did, the key is how easily it spreads, and that is affected by public health measures and factors like overcrowding.

‘One of the worst mistakes it seems to me in countries with SARS was to admit everyone to hospital. ‘That just helps spread the disease and impacts on other healthcare. For most people it would be better to have them under observation at home.

‘But many of the measures now being taken to try and control SARS are the right kind of thing – real resources are being put into it.

‘The question we should ask is, why can’t the same be done for other killer diseases like malaria, TB and AIDS?

‘In some of the press comment too there are a lot of totally unfounded things, and undercurrents of racism too with silly fears about Chinese restaurants and the like.

‘We should be concerned about SARS, but what is needed is rational public debate and health measures, not panic, and not rival newspapers pushing either over the top or stupidly complacent stories.’


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