SARS epidemic could re-emerge, warns WHO
Manila, July 7, 2003
The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned on Monday that the SARS epidemic can re-emerge in the next few months as doctors lacked an effective kit to diagnose the illness and with animals still harbouring the deadly virus.
In issuing the warning, Shigeru Omi, director for WHO Western Pacific region where 95 percent of SARS cases were reported during the recent outbreak, said SARS-hit countries should maintain their surveillance systems for at least one more year.
More than 100 people, mostly in Asia, were still recovering from the illness and it was too soon to give the all-clear signal, he added.
Omi feared that some patients could be carrying the SARS virus, although they seemingly had recovered from the pneumonia-like disease.
Those infected might also not display any SARS symptoms, making it impossible to detect them, he added.
WHO announced at the weekend that SARS had been contained worldwide, while removing Taiwan from the list of SARS affected regions.
SARS killed more than 800 people and infected more than 8,400 in some 30 countries since it first emerged in the Chinese province of Guangdong in November.
"In addition to those factors (pointing to a possible re-emergence of the disease), one thing that makes us more cautious is the possibility of SARS returning this winter in the northern hemisphere," Omi said.
"Even if this virus does not come back, certainly there will be other diseases with similar symptoms coming up -- influenza or common cold which represent similar symptoms as SARS."
He said that unless a more sensitive diagnostic kit was developed before winter, "there is going to be a lot of confusion with so many possible cases overwhelming health systems."
Diagnostic kits currently available can catch only about 70 percent of SARS cases.
WHO at the weekend advised travellers to areas with "recent outbreaks" of SARS to continue to watch for the main symptoms: high fever, dry cough or breathing difficulties.
Omi said that WHO had expected an effective diagnostic kit to be developed as early as April "but three months have passed and it seems that it is not so easy as we expected, especially in terms of sensitivity."
"For any virus to be declared eradicated, it has to meet certain conditions: its host should be only human, there should not be any chronic carriers of the illness, and there should be available a simple but effective diagnostic kit and an affordable vaccine.
"What we have achieved so far is that we have interrupted the human-to-human transmission of SARS. We have not wiped out the virus as it is very likely that animals are harbouring it," he said.
Omi also said that WHO would have to amend the "definition" of SARS cases following the UN agency's weekend declaration that all SARS-hit countries are free of the disease.
"Previously, one of the elements that constitute suspected SARS cases is the history of travel by the patients to affected areas. Now, there are no areas that are affected, so we need to review this," he said.