Sun, Mar 02, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Sanitation, swift action when battling pandemics in megacities

Fast diagnosis and good sanitation serve as society’s best weapons in the fight to contain disease outbreaks in an era of giant cities and international travel

By Sarah Boseley  /  The Guardian

In cities with high standards of care and expertise, like London, the policy is to take no risks.

“You isolate anything you don’t know. There is no excuse,” he said.

If there is a vaccine, as there was with swine flu in 2009, then health workers are the first priority — they must have it as quickly as possible to protect themselves and those they treat.

Because you cannot usually know who is infected until people fall ill and need treatment, the next step is to hospitalize anyone with symptoms — or ask them to stay home and keep away from everybody, which was the case with swine flu, when all infected people were asked to stay home and avoid the general practitioner for fear of infecting others.

A telephone line was set up to arrange for antiviral drugs and people were asked to send a friend to the pharmacy rather than leave the house.

SARS may not have made it to London, but the similar virus Middle East respiratory syndrome did, since it was identified in 2012 — a virus which scientists now claim may be linked to camels.

Those who fell ill were isolated in hospital and treated with the utmost care and caution; all their contacts were traced and tested. There was no question of quarantine, and no need — lab tests can quickly establish whether anybody has the virus.

SARS faded as quickly as it began.

By the end of the epidemic in the summer of 2003, 8,096 people had been infected and at least 774 had died. In Hong Kong, 1,755 were infected and 299 died.

Amoy Gardens suffered disproportionately, with 329 sick residents and 42 deaths. After 10 days in quarantine, the residents of Block E were evacuated to three Chinese government holiday camps while their apartments were disinfected — though the stigma was harder to wash away.

While the actions of authorities may have saved lives, the name of Amoy Gardens is now synonymous with one of the worst viral outbreaks of recent times — and proof, if people needed it, that excellent healthcare and proper surveillance are vital in protecting cities even as they become more interconnected and vulnerable than ever before.

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