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Officials move to snuff out growing hantavirus panic

FALSE ALARMS The Center for Disease Control has told doctors not to reveal suspected cases of the disease to the media, or else face a fine

By Chuang Chi-ting  /  STAFF REPORTER

In a bid to prevent further public alarm, the Center for Disease Control (CDC, 疾病管制局) yesterday asked doctors not to reveal suspected cases of hantavirus to the media.

The CDC has established four committees to review cases of suspected hantavirus infections. Only after discussion by the regional committee may doctors in charge of the suspected case reveal information to the media.

The CDC's notice, sent to doctors' professional associations, requests doctors not to talk to the media until their suspected cases have been reviewed by the local committees established by the CDC. The committees are made up of experts in each region.

The four committees cover northern, eastern, southern and central Taiwan.

Regulations were also attached to the CDC's notice.

The regulations state that doctors can be fined NT$90,000 to NT$450,000 if they reveal cases to the public which have not first been reported to and confirmed by the CDC.

The CDC said it wants to fully monitor any spread of hantavirus in Taiwan and is therefore asking doctors or members of the public who have detected symptoms similar to hantavirus infection to report cases to the CDC.

"Many cases suspected by doctors or local residents have been reported. But their suspicions were based merely on symptoms," said Hsu Kuo-hsiung (許國雄), deputy director-general of the CDC. He said, however, that as it is the high season for flu, many of these reported cases are nothing more than common colds.

Symptoms of flu and hantavirus infection can be very similar, experts said.

"Constant reporting by the media of cases that have not been subject to laboratory tests have provoked unreasonable panic," said Hsu.

Hantavirus timeline

* Huang Hsueh-chiao died on Jan. 13, husband Wu Mu-kuei died the following day.

* On Jan. 17, Taipei's Veterans General Hospital said the Hualien couple may have been poisoned with tellurium, a metallic element.

* On Jan. 22 the Center for Disease Control announced the cause of death as hantavirus.

* The Center for Disease Control criticized local media for doubting the credibility of its findings on Jan. 1.

Source: Taipei Times


Hsu was dismissive of media speculation that the hantavirus might have been unleashed by China as a means of controlling Taiwan by germ warfare. "Using a virus that can only be transmitted through contact with contaminated feces, urine or saliva ... is totally inefficient," he said.

Amid widespread alarm about the virus, some have raised the issue of whether a hantavirus vaccine should be imported. The CDC, however, regards such a suggestion as "reckless." Hsu said the vaccine is only for certain serotypes of hantavirus. Its effectiveness, moreover, is still under observation.

The vaccine was developed in Korea in 1995. Currently it is only used for groups at high risk of hantavirus infection, such as farmers and researchers involved in laboratory experiments, Hsu said.

The CDC said that it had found reported cases whose symptoms bore no resemblance to those of hantavirus. Officials said some doctors reported cases to the CDC because other hospitals had already discovered possible infected cases. "Hospitals might have done so out of competition with each other, but that would mislead and panic the public."

A Hualien couple has been confirmed as having died from hantavirus infection last month. Preliminary lab tests also indicate strong grounds for suspicion that a female in the same area has contracted the virus. Further analysis is under way in that case. The patient, however, is in stable condition and ready to leave the hospital.

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