Efforts by the government and medical establishment to control the spread of SARS deserve encouragement. Hopefully their work will soon bear fruit. As the epidemic has entered a new phase, the urgent task is to study the disease's direction.
From the very beginning our prevention measures have followed WHO guidelines of trying to completely block the spread of the virus and then wipe it out. If the future does not turn out as expected, should the disease-prevention measures be increased in scope? Should the epidemic-prevention measures be raised to a higher level continuously? We should have a more thorough and macroscopic view.
Intense fear will only create more public pressure. More government measures will not only create more expectations but also carry more risks of disappointment. Epidemic control involves many "human activities." Is complete, flawless isolation aimed at wiping out the virus a practical and realistic measure?
As prevention measures increase in scope, is the benefit proportional to the increase in social costs? Can we really wipe out SARS while understanding little about it? Were there any endemic cases in the past? Does the SARS virus take different forms in different countries?
If we are not sure of the answers to the above questions, should we consider how to coexist with SARS?
The world is by nature a place in which humans and microorganisms live together. Even if we exterminate one kind of microorganism, other new strains will continue to emerge. Although some past epidemics such as measles, smallpox and polio were eventually defeated, new viruses continue to come into being.
Because of close relations with China and Hong Kong, Taiwan is different from Singapore and Vietnam. Social and economic entanglements make it impossible for Taiwan to be free from the threat of SARS so long as the virus is not wiped out in China. While reduced cross-strait tensions provide an opportunity for Taiwan to recreate its political and economic miracles, they are by no means beneficial to long-term epidemic prevention.
When we consider adjusting our policy direction, the view of Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, published in New York Times last week, can perhaps give us a clue. Medical workers and the public should not panic but should face the epidemic with an open mind and pay attention to health care, epidemic prevention and proper isolation. Proper treatment should be made available once there is infection.
The above views are not aimed to denying our efforts, but to seek a better course of action and allow experts to draw on useful ideas for the future. Hopefully people will join hands and work together in epidemic prevention to create a brighter future.
Steve Chan is the president of Chi Mei Medical Center and the former director-general of the Department of Health.
Translated by Grace Shaw