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 Lukes 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 Lukes 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.