- The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced it will help African countries to take precautionary measures against the deadly lung disease SARS. Given the weaknesses of the public health sectors in most countries, there are concerns that a possible spread of SARS in Africa could easily get out of control.
The WHO announces it is currently working with countries in Africa to tighten their health surveillance systems to" ensure prompt detection and prevention" of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
- We are working with [African states] for the institution of precautionary measures to protect people in our region where healthcare systems are weak, and several millions are infected with HIV, WHO's Regional Director for Africa, Ebrahim Samba, said this week in Brazzaville, Congo.
Though the region has so far only had one probable case of SARS, reported early last month in South Africa, WHO said it has urged African countries to ensure the availability of facilities at airports and other points of entry to promptly identify and quarantine suspected cases. A number of countries had already taken adequate precautionary measures, the organisation however noted.
Dr Samba said globalisation and the subsequent ability of people to travel internationally within hours presents an opportunity for infectious diseases to spread efficiently. Accordingly, all countries have received travel guidelines to areas where SARS is currently ranging.
The latest statistics on the global outbreak indicate a total of 5,663 probable cases and 372 deaths. Almost all cases are confined to eastern Asia, in particular China and Hong Kong, while there is a second herd around Toronto, Canada.
Outside these two outbreak regions, individual cases have been isolated, thus hindering new infections. This was also the case in South Africa, where the infected businessman returning from Hong Kong has been isolated in a Pretoria hospital. So far, therefore, there exist no public health risks in Africa, regarding SARS.
There is, however, a rising concern that an undetected case of SARS, arriving Africa from the outbreak zone, could result in an uncontrolled outbreak. Most public health institutions in Africa are conceived to be ill-prepared for a possible SARS outbreak and generally poor health and hygienic conditions could result in a rapid spread.
From Asia, it is known that SARS has a mortality rate from 5 to 10 percent, much depending on the previous health condition of the infected population. There are so far no cures against the SARS virus, which is believed to be a mutation of a flu virus that previously only attacked domestic animals. The main theory holds it, that poor hygienic conditions in Chinese markets created conditions for the virus to mutate, enabling it to attack humans.
On the other hand, little is still known about the virus causing SARS. While the mutated animal flu (corona) virus theory still dominates, Canadian scientists are now doubting this connection. Tests had found corona viruses in only half of those having SARS symptoms. As long as the virus is not definitively isolated, a possible cure is not within reach.
Meanwhile, WHO plans to hold an international scientific meeting in Geneva from 17 to 16 June to "review the epidemiological, clinical management and laboratory findings on the respiratory disease and to discuss global control strategies," the UN agency announced.
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