SARS and Public Health Preparedness
Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES
While coalition forces have been battling toward Baghdad, clinicians around the globe have been involved in a grim fight of their own against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). To date, SARS has stricken 487 individuals from 12 countries, caused panic in some parts of Asia and raised fears across the globe.
The outbreak has also provided an important test of the U.S. public health system's ability to deal with such events, whether natural or man-made. While it is evident that authorities have made a number of improvements to their ability to discover and deal with such emergent diseases, others could still be made.
During any sort of outbreak, it is critical for authorities to provide timely, accurate information to physicians, the press and the public. On this score, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has done well. According to Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC, it was scarcely a day before the agency had made calls to the clinicians and state health officials and scarcely a day and a half before it had issued guidelines for isolating patients with SARS. Since the anthrax attacks of 2001, public health officials have increased training for public health emergencies, developed computer systems to highlight unusual patterns of illnesses and stockpiled antidotes and treatments for potential bioweapons.
It is good that such preparations have been made, since dealing with outbreaks is rarely easy. First, the outbreak must be discovered. That is not as straightforward as it sounds, since it can be some time before specific syndromes emerge against the public health background. Clinicians must be alert to unusual events, or unusual clusters of disease in time or in place. While a single case of smallpox would signal an outbreak and a public health emergency, slightly higher than normal levels of flu or pneumonia (as in the case of SARS) might not be noticed immediately. …