SARS outbreak in UK 'inevitable'

April 2003
AN OUTBREAK of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is inevitable in Britain and will stretch NHS resources to breaking point, the country’s leading microbiology expert warned yesterday.

Professor Hugh Pennington, of Aberdeen University, said health officials would be forced to implement emergency plans drawn up to deal with a bio-terrorism attack to tackle the impending crisis.

"It will get about and will be with us for the foreseeable future," Prof Pennington told The Scotsman. "We have to prepare for it to come."

He added that even a small outbreak of the disease would cause "mayhem" in the National Health Service, as entire intensive care units would be devoted to treating SARS sufferers.

As China began implementing draconian quarantine measures to contain the spread of the disease yesterday, Dr Liam Fox, the shadow health secretary, described the UK government’s response to the threat of an outbreak as "feeble, complacent and irresponsible".

Dr Fox called for SARS to be classified a notifiable disease under the Public Health Act, giving officials the power to force patients to receive treatment and ensure others were not exposed to the virus.

He said: "All around the world, SARS is causing immense alarm. Here, on the other hand, ministers’ conduct would make people think that nothing serious is going on.

"The only sensible way for the government to proceed is to make SARS a notifiable disease."

One of the world’s leading experts warned yesterday that unless the virus is dealt with quickly, a second - and larger - wave of cases could emerge.

Dr Donald S Burke, writing in The Scotsman today, said: "Epidemic-control efforts should not simply be maintained, but doubled, and redoubled again."

Four more SARS deaths were reported in the Chinese capital of Beijing yesterday, and authorities have sealed off entire villages, along with the People’s Hospital of Beijing University, where more than 100 infected patients are being treated.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the flu-like virus has killed more than 260 people and infected more than 4,500 worldwide after being spread from Asia by airline passengers. The organisation has advised travellers to avoid visiting Toronto, in Canada, Hong Kong, Beijing and the Guangdong and Shanxi provinces of China.

Economists at the World Bank said the impact of the SARS virus, along with the aftermath of war in Iraq, could knock almost one-sixth of a per cent off economic growth in Asia this year.

The Canadian government strongly protested to the World Health Organisation yesterday for advising travellers to avoid Toronto, the scene of the worst SARS outbreak outside Asia, with 16 fatalities.

"There is no evidence of casual transmission of the disease in Toronto," said Dr Paul Gully, a Canadian government health officer. "We challenge the WHO’s assertion that Toronto is an unsafe place to visit."

So far, only six suspected cases have been found in Britain, none of which has been fatal. All of the cases involved patients who contracted the virus overseas, but it emerged yesterday that a Thai woman in hospital in Bangkok with suspected SARS may have contracted the virus in London.

During a recent visit to Britain, She was in contact with a Chinese businessman who may have passed on the virus.

Health officials said 140 children from Hong Kong and China, quarantined on the Isle of Wight a week ago, have so far shown no sign of the illness.

Prof Pennington, Scotland’s leading microbiologist, who led the investigation into the E coli 0157 outbreak in Wishaw, said the quarantine measures in China and elsewhere were not sufficient to prevent SARS spreading around the globe, and he expected a significant outbreak in Britain within months.

"When it does come - even though the number of cases are small - it might well create mayhem because it will mean that a large chunk of a hospital will have to dedicate itself to SARS at the expense of ordinary run-of-the-mill activity," he said.

SARS was first detected in southern China and has spread to more than 20 countries.

Symptoms are similar to pneumonia, with sufferers complaining of coughing, raging temperatures and sore throats. There is no cure and the mortality rate is between 5 and 6 per cent.