Virus shows how vulnerable we can be

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Globalization has not come without a cost. In today's world of international travel, if someone from Japan sneezes, someone in Southeast Missouri may soon catch a cold.

Or maybe even something worse.

One example is the so-called mystery disease now known as SARS, for severe acute respiratory syndrome. The deadly form of pneumonia has killed more than 50 people and required the hospitalization of more than 1,400 others, mostly in Asia.

Its effects are being severely felt elsewhere, though, and it seems only a matter of time until it arrives here. (There have already been cases in Canada.) Singapore has quarantined hundreds of people, and schools in Hong Kong and Vietnam are being closed in an effort to isolate the virus.

The culprit, according to health officials, is a coronavirus, a pesky bug similar to the one that can cause the common cold. In this age of global positioning systems, cell phones and high-speed connections, it is still a virus that has never been seen in humans before.

So much for progress.

It seems that the access point to the United States could end up being through our own airlines as international air travelers may be passing the virus on to others. That has prompted the U.S. State Department to advise citizens to avoid world travel -- as if the travel industry wasn't in enough trouble.

But the advice seems worth taking. Hong Kong officials have said nine tourists apparently came down with the deadly disease after another passenger infected them on a flight to Beijing.

Hong Kong Airlines, airports and passengers intensified measures Friday against the disease as more cases of the disease emerged among air travelers. Hong Kong, it is believed, is the city from which the disease spread to more than a dozen countries.

Anxiety intensified after the World Health Organization last Thursday urged the airport authorities in cities affected by the outbreak to discourage travel by any passenger who had come down with a fever within the previous 24 hours.

The news wasn't all glum, however. Officials offered some encouragement, saying that many of the sick seem to improve with steroids and an anti-viral drug, ribavirin.

What happens next remains to be seen.

Ultimately, however, it seems the health officials have been open about what has happened and how they're dealing with it. That might be the best remedy until a real cure can be found.

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