Fri, Oct 03, 2003 - Page 5 News List

SARS probe finds complacency

CRITICISM A Hong Kong panel found shortcomings during the early phase of the epidemic, but did not blame any individual for negligence or lack of diligence

REUTERS , HONG KONG

An expert panel probing Hong Kong's SARS epidemic said yesterday there were significant shortcomings in the government's initial response to the outbreak of the virus, but did not single out anyone for blame.

At least 300 people died of SARS in Hong Kong earlier this year.

The panel criticized the Hong Kong government for being complacent and not adequately following up rumors of a mysterious epidemic in China's neighboring Guangdong Province late last year.

It also highlighted a lack of communication between the Department of Health and public and private hospitals and doctors, and said some chains of command were ineffective.

The virus was carried from southern China to Hong Kong in February, eventually infecting nearly 1,800 people in the territory. It was spread around the world by air travelers, killing more than 800 people and infecting more than 8,400.

Medical experts say SARS could re-emerge this winter but warn that Hong Kong's healthcare system is far from ready to handle another epidemic.

"There were significant shortcomings of system performance during the early phase of the epidemic when little was known about the disease or its cause, some of which were aggravated by key personnel becoming ill with SARS as the epidemic progressed," said Professor Sian Griffiths, co-chairperson of the government-commissioned panel of 11 experts.

But it added: "The committee has not found any individual deemed to be culpable of negligence, lack of diligence or maladministration."

The panel's decision not to hold anyone personally responsible for the spread of the disease is expected to trigger angry reactions in the community, and legislators are expected to press for an independent inquiry.

The government's initial handling of the outbreak was one of several issues which brought half a million protesters on to the streets in July to vent their anger at the local Beijing-backed government, triggering Hong Kong's biggest political crisis in years.

The panel made 46 recommendations to guard the territory against such future disasters, including setting up contingency plans in close collaboration with neighboring areas, constant communication with the public and making sure all healthcare personnel were alert to potential dangers.

One of the first victims in Hong Kong was a young man who passed the virus to over 100 healthcare workers, patients and visitors at the hospital where he was admitted.

Many doctors have subsequently slammed the government for failing to shut down the hospital, which quickly became the epicenter of the outbreak in the territory.

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