23 APRIL 2003

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Health authorities close in on SARS contingency plan

By Matthew Vella
Maltese health authorities have outlined their prevention plans for the international outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, in the wake of a death toll escalating to 217.
Health Director-General Dr Ray Busuttil yesterday released official guidelines for the prevention of SARS, of which over 1,800 cases have been reported so far, the majority located in China and south-east Asia.
"Little can be done except educating the public properly, especially those who have been in those countries where cases of SARS outbreaks have been reported, namely Toronto in Canada, China, Hong Kong, Hanoi in Vietnam and Singapore," Dr Busuttil said.
"We are therefore providing airport staff with notices and leaflets in different languages advising those who have been in these countries to contact the airport medical services upon arrival.
"Furthermore, the immigration authorities will not be permitting entry to anyone in the country if the Public Health authorities were not contacted beforehand. Immigration authorities will be watching out for arrivals from any of the countries affected by SARS outbreaks and will be taking the necessary measures."
Dr Busuttil said medical practitioners have been issued with circulars with World Health Organisation criteria with which potential SARS cases could be identified. Typical tell-tale signs are similar to influenza symptoms, mainly high fever, coughing and shortness of breath.
So far there have been no cases of SARS reported in Malta. Health authorities are encouraging those working in closed areas and students who have been to any of the affected countries recently to stay off from work for a period of ten days, in order to ensure better monitoring of potential victims, and to prevent any possible transmission.
Travel advisories have also been circulated to advise the public against non-essential travel in areas of international SARS.
Two cases were referred to St Luke’s hospital in the past weeks, having reported flu-like symptoms and having travelled from Australia to Malta via Singapore. Dr Busuttil said the two cases had not been diagnosed with SARS, and had served as an important ‘guinea-pig’ step in ensuring the hospital was equipped to assist potential cases.
Infection Control Unit head Dr Michael Borg said any potential SARS case would have had travelled to an area of international SARS outbreak within the previous ten days and had close contact with any SARS case: "This is not as contagious a disease as tuberculosis. It is a droplet-transmitted disease and the mortality rate is as high as that of common influenza."
WHO authorities have said the mortality rate for SARS is four per cent.
Dr Borg also said that if any potential SARS case was pre-empted well into its initial stages, the chances of recovery were very positive.
Medical Superintendent at St Luke’s Hospital Dr Frank Bartolo said the public could call the health authorities on the following numbers in case of any suspected SARS cases: 21324086, 21324085, 21332235 between Monday and Friday.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
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