Fri, 27 Jun 2003

War against SARS not over yet

The Daily Yomiuri, Asia News Network, Tokyo

The SARS epidemic is about to come to an end at long last. The World Health Organization on Tuesday lifted its warning against travel to Beijing -- one of the cities the WHO had designated as a SARS-infected area and that accounted for nearly one-third of the people infected with the deadly virus in the world.

Now that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome infection has, at least for the time being, been brought under control in mainland China, where the first case in the world was identified, the only remaining infected areas are Taiwan and Toronto.

But it is too early to say that the battle against SARS has been won.

The source of infection -- the focal point of the SARS crisis -- has yet to be identified. There also remain a number of uncertain points concerning how the infection spread around the world. No effective anti-SARS drugs or reliable checkup methods have yet been developed.

More worrisome is that when it comes to an infectious respiratory disease such as SARS, there is a high possibility of its breaking out again in winter even though it ran its course in summer.

It seems sensible that the WHO nonetheless said that precautions against SARS should remain in place for at least a year. We should not be caught off guard.

To prevent another SARS epidemic, it is vital to reinforce international monitoring of the disease. If countries share up-to-date information on the infection, SARS can be prevented from crossing borders.

At issue now is the way China responded to the disease. SARS spread around the world because the Chinese government initially concealed information on the illness. This should not be allowed to happen again. We strongly urge the Chinese government to fully disclose relevant information from now on.

The development of effective drugs and diagnostic methods is urgently needed. As this is a task that the international community must unite to carry out, Japan, for its part, should not stint on necessary funds and manpower.

No SARS cases have yet been identified in Japan. However, we should take all prudent measures to deal with an outbreak should one occur.

SARS first appeared in the 21st century. Yet countermeasures for the disease were the same as those developed for contagions in the 19th century -- forced isolation and comprehensive checkups.

The key to winning the battle against SARS is acting quickly to prevent its spread. Should the government delay in taking steps to counter the illness, the results would be disastrous. Close cooperation between the central and local governments is vital in this regard.

Broad-based countermeasures are needed to fight infectious diseases. In this respect, it also is an urgent matter to review current legislation concerning infectious diseases, which basically leaves it up to prefectural governments to deal with outbreaks.

Winter, during which it is feared SARS will break out again, also is the season in which the influenza virus spreads. Both illnesses have similar initial symptoms, such as high fever and coughing.

To minimize possible confusion in clinical settings, governments should advise those who are traveling to such SARS- hit countries as China to get vaccinated against influenza. While this will not prevent people from getting infected with SARS, those who are infected with influenza will not be mixed up with those with SARS once the influenza symptoms abate.

The battle against an invisible enemy has just begun.