SARS Wars

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is making the world sneeze. Even as the global health community struggles to unmask a new, deadly, organism, it faces a 21st century dilemma: the speed at which its human carriers have travelled is faster than the incubation of the disease

 
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is making the world sneeze. Even as the global health community struggles to unmask a new, deadly, organism, it faces a 21st century dilemma: the speed at which its human carriers have travelled is faster than the incubation of the disease.

There are several theories on the fever's origin. The most virulent one connects it to the Iraq war. Another suggests that in Gaungdong, the region in China where the first cases were reported, the fever could have emerged from the 'sustainable' practice of captive breeding. (Flu is actually a virus carried by migratory waterfowl, whose droppings contain viruses that can infect captive ducks and chicken. Hong Kong has witnessed this regularly, including this year, which went unnoticed.) Also, the virus could have been around for a long time, causing occasional infections simply diagnosed as pneumonia or respiratory infection. Then, 'some' event in China facilitated a dramatic spread. With cases rising every day, scientists in Toronto discovered a novel coronavirus that could cause sars. Meanwhile institutions and drug companies are scurrying to find a vaccine. A paper in the recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found it difficult to understand how people spread sars. Some infect 4-100 others; some don't even infect the ones they live with.

Initially Hitoshi Oshitani, World Health Organization coordinator for sars, said he believes scientists would determine the cause within days. He declined, however, to speculate on how long it would take to find an effective treatment. It took over a fortnight to discover the type of virus, and it is still not clear how the virus acts. It took about a month before a complete diagnosis and treatment protocol could be recommended. Conventional virology has been defeated and research had to start from scratch.

India is utterly prepared. In Bhopal, there was a scare in the first week of April, when two people died of a mysterious pneumonia. It took India's health minister, Sushma Swaraj, just one evening to announce that it wasn't sars. Just how she managed such a diagnosis is a microbiological wonder. In Kolkata, the West Bengal health minister drew an analogy to an epidemic of an unknown fever in Siliguri in February 2001, and praised his department for its efforts on restricting death to about 55. He is confident of beating the new virus. Meanwhile Mumbai and Hyderabad now have their first sars cases. Denials to these are awaited.

In the battle for survival, it is often the simplest of creatures that are the most lethal. More complicated than any arsenal developed by humans, the organism still reigns supreme in this arms race.

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