Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 2 News List

Extreme anti-SARS measures aggravate public fear

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD Moves designed to control the outbreak of SARS are doing more harm than good because they are contributing to unnecessary hysteria


Judy Li takes her temperature every two hours, chants Buddhist sutras and wolfs down as many lemons, pineapples and vinegar drinks as her stomach can take.

Since developing a fever a week ago, the magazine editor has seen her doctor three times, only to be told each time she has flu and not SARS.

"I can't help but be terrified, especially when I go to the hospital and see all these people wearing masks and standing far from one another," she says.

The fever has subsided but Li, in her late 40s lives in fear of the virus even though she had no other SARS-like symptoms.

A survey by a Chinese-language paper suggests 73 percent of Taiwanese share her fear. Worries about local transmission have made mask-wearing mandatory in many public areas even though over 90 percent of the nation's 483 cases are hospital infections.

Some doctors blame the government for the growing panic, saying its draconian anti-SARS measures have fuelled hysteria and undermined attempts to control the disease.

For example, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) proposed an automatic three-day quarantine for anyone with a fever. The Department of Health banned the sale of anti-fever pills at drugstores to force possible SARS sufferers to go to see doctors, though it later denied it had done so.

"Health officials have misled people with their extreme moves," said Ruey Lin, an epidemiologist at National Taiwan University's Public Health Department.

"They need to give proper information so people know communal infection risk is very low," he said.

A frightened public makes it hard to control SARS.

Some people hoard surgical masks leading to a shortage for medical workers, while others hide their possible exposure to SARS patients in medical histories -- afraid of becoming social outcasts.

In the face of rising anxiety, the government kicked off a campaign this week to demystify the new respiratory disease.

"Please live your lives normally," Lee Ying-yuan (李應元), an adviser to the government's SARS committee, told a news conference.

"Since it is not transmitted by air, there is no need to panic," he said.

But the damage is hard to undo. Consumers refuse to venture out to shops or restaurants, choking the economy.

Most Taipei roads have been gridlocked by 7am since a government order required all subway and train passengers to wear masks caused people to become wary of public transport and avoid using it.

Although the government reported a record daily rise in probable SARS cases of 65 yesterday, doctors say the virus has only killed 60 people in the country -- making it less of a killer than tuberculosis or car accidents.

Tuberculosis, spread through sneezes or saliva, infects 15,000 people every year in Taiwan and kills 1,500 of them.

In the first three months of this year, car accidents killed 680 people and injured 35,000.

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