SARS Not a Disease of Asians
April 08, 2003 4:28 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As Chinese-Canadians complained they were being victimized for the spread of the respiratory illness SARS, a top U.S. health official said on Tuesday it is not a disease unique to Asians. Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned against such discrimination. She also said U.S. authorities were so far controlling any threat of an epidemic here in the United States. But in China, doctors said the government was under-reporting the number of cases and said many hospital wards were full.Hong Kong doctors also published some of the first journal reports on SARS that give clues about why some patients die and others do not.
At least 103 people have died worldwide from SARS and 2,750 have been infected in about 20 countries — nearly half of them in China. Doctors believe the epidemic began in China’s southern Guangdong province in November. The older the patient, the more likely they are to die of SARS, Dr. Joseph Sung and colleagues in the medical team at Hong Kong’s Prince of Wales Hospital reported in a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine. Those who died also had high levels of an enzyme suggesting lung damage called lactate dehydrogenase, the team reported. In addition, patients who died had high levels of immune cells called neutrophils, which the body releases to fight invading bacteria or viruses. Although all five patients who died in Sung’s study had some other illness, such as congestive heart failure, liver cirrhosis or hepatitis, being ill with something besides SARS did not put patients at special risk of dying, they reported.
Canada is one of the countries hardest hit by SARS, with some 226 people infected and 10 reported deaths. The virus was carried to Canada by people flying on airliners from Asia.
Thousands of Canadians, many of them health care workers, have been quarantined in their homes, while others are wearing masks to work for fear that they might have been exposed to the virus and might infect others. Chinese-Canadians said they were being treated like monsters. Ming Tat Cheung, president of Toronto’s Chinese Cultural Center, said shoppers were staying away from normally bustling Chinatown, and sales were down by up to 70 percent. “We have people calling here saying that Canadians are telling them ‘You dirty Chinese, you eat everything, that’s why you bring diseases’,” Cheung told Reuters. “Chinese Canadians are the victims, not the instigators.” Gerberding said such reactions were illogical. “This is not an illness of Asians,” Gerberding told a U.S. Senate hearing. “This is an illness of people in a particular part of the world where the virus is spreading.” But one Toronto cab driver said he was not picking up passengers from hospitals or from the Chinatown area. “It’s not racism — it’s a precaution. I have to protect my family,” said the cab driver, who refused to give his name.
In China’s Guangdong province, officials said the rate of new infections was down sharply and the outbreak was under control. At least three more people died in Beijing from SARS than officially reported, doctors in the Chinese capital said on Tuesday, as fears spread and hospitals disclosed suspected cases not previously revealed.
“It’s impossible there are only 19 SARS cases in Beijing,” said a doctor at the Beijing University No. 1 Hospital. “There are no beds left in our epidemic ward.” Beijing has reported 19 cases and four deaths out of 1,279 infections and 53 deaths nationwide, most of them in Guangdong, where the virus first appeared last November.
More than 40 people in Hong Kong’s Ngau Tau Kok district in Kowloon and Tuen Mun in the New Territories caught the disease in the last 10 days, said a health department spokesman and a district lawmaker in Tuen Mun, raising fears it is far from contained.
Two more deaths and 45 new infections were reported on Tuesday in Hong Kong, where the disease has already killed 25 people.
Deputy Director of Health Leung Pak-yin told a radio program cockroaches might have carried infected waste from sewage pipes into apartments in a huge housing complex, Amoy Gardens, which has had a quarter of the city’s 928 infections.
CDC officials had no immediate comment on such reports. Gerberding told the Senate appropriations committee hearing that the CDC had enough resources to deal with SARS. She said the CDC was meeting with the airline industry to help find ways to prevent SARS from spreading even more.