We must learn from SARS
On the 10th anniversary of the SARS outbreak that terrorized Taiwan in 2003, a new threat, the H7N9 bird flu virus, seems to be looming. Just like SARS, H7N9 originated in China.
The index (first) case of SARS in Taiwan came from China. I fear it is only a matter of time before the H7N9 flu virus spreads to Taiwan due to the frequent human travel between the two countries.
It is commendable that the government is taking this matter seriously, as indicated in a Taipei Times report (“DOH rings bird flu alarm bells,” April 4, page 1).
The quarantine alert for H7N9 has been raised from Grade 2 to Grade 3 (Grade 5 is the highest), and a national-level H7N9 epidemic prevention and control center has been established, and “activated,” with a chief named to operate the center.
However, I have always been intrigued regarding how such measures would help curb a potential serious and deadly epidemic. Flu viruses, being invisible, clandestinely spread at astronomical speeds between poultry and perhaps, in this case, humans.
Patients who are infected by the virus will never, by wearing a T shirt, indicate that “I am infected with flu.”
In addition, during the incubation period of an infection, patients are spreading virions and infecting others even when they have no symptoms.
Accordingly, one wonders what can be achieved through a “prevention and control center” once the infecting organism has quietly arrived?
The most effective measure would be to nip the problem in the bud, that is, to avoid contacting infected patients, which is in accordance with the notion of a quarantine.
The logical step to take is to avoid going to the epicenter of infection: China.
Without a travel ban, the virus will likely be imported from China, and prevention and control will be as effective as a dog chasing its tail.
While the H7N9 bird flu has not infected many people in China — “only” five people have died — one must bear in mind that it is of low pathogenicity. That five patients have died is alarming to the medical and scientific community.
In addition, the Chinese government does not have a credible track record of reporting communicable diseases: They tend to under-report it or try to cover it up, as in the early phase of the SARS epidemic.
The real scale of H7N9 remains to be determined and it is advisable to stay away from China for now. Although the WHO does not recommend a travel ban, since no evidence of human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, it seems prudent to err on the side of caution.
The acclaimed philosopher and novelist George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Close to a hundred lives were lost in the 2003 SARS epidemic, including those of medical professionals who cared for patients with SARS. Survivors still suffer from the side effects of treatment and Taiwanese society as a whole paid dearly including financial setbacks, loss of trust and much more.
I sincerly hope that government officials in Taiwan understand the history of SARS and avoid making the same mistake when handling the current threat of H7N9.