Sunday, May 11, 2003

WHO: Malaysia learnt from Nipah outbreak


KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s experience in dealing with the Nipah virus has helped stop the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) from spreading locally, said the World Health Organisation (WHO).
WHO regional representative Dr Joel Vanderburg said the Nipah outbreak in 1998-1999 had turned into a “silver lining that came out of a tragedy”.
“It helped to prepare the local healthcare community and government agencies to respond quickly ahead of many countries when WHO first issued an alert on SARS.
“What transpired in Malaysia was that when imported probable SARS cases reached the hospitals, when the infected individuals got into the local healthcare setting, the disease did not continue and carry on to infect the first or second generation patients.
“It stopped there. This has something to do with the Government’s initial response to ensure hospitals were alerted and to put in place a very effective protection system for healthcare providers in dealing with probable and suspected cases,” he said.
Dr Vanderburg, who was invited to attend the Health Ministry’s daily SARS briefing with health deputy director-general Datuk Dr Ismail Merican, said most of the SARS-affected countries started to experience difficulties when their healthcare providers were infected and fell ill.
“When the initial imported cases got into the local healthcare setting – such as in Singapore and Vietnam – the general public was not at high risk. The real problem started when the healthcare providers were badly hit and became ill,” he added.
“One of the lessons we have learnt is the importance of setting up formal and effective protective measures in hospitals to safeguard healthcare providers and prevent SARS from spreading in an explosive nature,” he said.
Dr Vanderburg said many questions were asked about the attention given to SARS when its death toll was nothing compared to the millions of deaths caused by diseases such as malaria.
“SARS could have become a global epidemic. The reason that the number of SARS-related cases and deaths were relatively small is because we had responded fast, remained vigilant and asserted control,” he said.
He said work was continuing towards ridding and not just controlling the disease and it was possible to eradicate SARS as measures put in place by various governments were beginning to pay off.
Based on WHO data, as of May 4, a total of 7,183 SARS cases were reported with 514 deaths but fewer new cases were emerging.
The average number of daily reported cases stood at 150 compared to 400 during its peak. The average number of SARS-related deaths also decreased from 30 to 15 cases daily.
Dr Vanderburg warned of the dangers of being complacent with the situation improving, as there was a possibility of the disease making a comeback.
Dr Ismail echoed Dr Vanderburg’s concern about being complacent as the disease still posed a danger.
“I urge all healthcare providers, from the frontliners who perform SARS screening to the doctors, to remain cautious and always be on the lookout.
“We should not get too comfortable due to the lack of local transmission or absence of new probable cases,” he said.