Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 2 News List

Masks on MRT to stay for now: Ma

SAFETY ON THE MOVE The Taipei mayor said that the requirement would be lifted when the rate of infections falls, but the WHO said that masks may be useless anyway


If no new cases of SARS are reported, the requirement to wear masks aboard the mass rapid transit (MRT) system will be lifted, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said yesterday.

City authorities imposed the requirement on Sunday, demanding that all passengers on the MRT don masks before boarding.

Boarding the Pannan Line at Taipei City Hall station at about 11am, Ma observed the situation at the Chunghsiao Fuhsing station, the Lungshan Temple station and the Taipei main station along the way.

Ma noted that passengers have become used to wearing masks, although a small number were unprepared and did not have masks. He said masks should be made available by the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation at stations at reasonable prices and the money generated from their sale donated to the SARS-fighting fund.

On the fourth day of the requirement to wear masks aboard the MRT, Ma was asked how long it will last. "This will depend on the development of the SARS outbreak," Ma responded.

With the people quarantined as a result of the mass SARS transmissions at Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital and Jen Chi Hospital -- the first two hospitals to be sealed off -- soon to end their quarantine, Ma said that if no new SARS cases are reported, the restrictions will be gradually lifted.

But according to World Health Organization (WHO) experts in Geneva, wearing masks may not be much use anyway.

Mark Salter, a specialist in charge of the WHO's communicable disease monitoring and response system, said yesterday he respected the Taipei City Government's decision to require all commuters on the MRT to wear surgical masks, but he pointed out that the possibility of contracting SARS under normal conditions is slim.

For instance, Salter said, no SARS transmissions have been reported aboard commercial aircraft in recent weeks. Therefore, he said, the WHO does not recommend the use of surgical masks on any public transport vehicles.

Dr. David Heymann, director of the WHO's communicable disease department, stressed that the SARS virus can be transmitted only through close contact. Ordinary citizens are unlikely to contract the disease in the streets unless they come across a SARS-infected person and have a face-to-face close encounter, he explained. Against this backdrop, Heymann pointed out, wearing a mask is meaningless.

Ma also said that the city government is now placing all homeless people in quarantine in one place to see if any of them have been infected with SARS.

If they have not, there will be no reason to continue their isolation, he said in response to worries expressed by some people in a recently quarantined housing complex in Wanhua that the street people will return to the district, where Hoping and Jen Chi hospitals are located.

Meanwhile, Environmental Protection Administration chief Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) said that kitchen leftovers produced by medical institutions or those who are under home quarantine have been listed as contagious waste and they will undergo three separate disinfection processes before being delivered for incineration.

Speaking in the legislature, Hau also said that there is still no evidence to show that SARS can jump from man to animals or vice versa, or be transmitted from kitchen leftovers, although he said his administration will adopt a more cautious attitude.

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