[OUTLOOK]New diseases respect no privilegeA new type of infectious disease that started in Hong Kong is continuing to spread. First discovered in the middle of March, this disease has already passed through Hong Kong and Singapore to spread into 13 other countries. At present, there are over 2,630 patients who are suspected to have fallen to this disease.
This disease is passed on through the small water drops emitted in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Since water drops do not normally float or fly far through air, only people who have been standing in close range, approximately 1 meter (yard), and face-to-face with an infected person would have the possibility of contacting the disease.
The first secondary victims to fall victim to the disease were mostly doctors and nurses who had taken care of the infected persons without any protection masks because they were unaware of the route of infection. Family members who live in the same house as the victims also have a higher risk of contracting the disease. However, there recently have been reports of people contracting the disease after staying on the same floor of a hotel with a previously infected person and also a case of 213 residents of one apartment complex in Hong Kong caught the disease, causing concern that perhaps the disease is transmitted easily through air.
The symptoms of this disease are similar to those of a flu, when you feel cold, your whole body aches and you start to cough. In the case of the flu, one usually gets better in about a week.
This disease, on the other hand, gets worse. It started acquiring the symptoms of pneumonia when you start feeling short of breath, your chest feels closed. However, only one or two out of 10 patients become this ill and get hospitalized in the intensive care unit. The rate of fatality is also a low 3 percent.
The cause of this disease is still unknown. It is said that a common virus was found in some of the patients but it will still be two or three more weeks before the laboratory results come out that can confirm whether this virus is indeed the cause of the disease or not. According to the report of the results so far, the most likely culprit is the corona virus.
The corona virus, however, has been known to cause only light infections of the upper airway like nose colds or throat colds. It is a virus that is incapable of penetrating deep into the lungs and cause serious cases of pneumonia. This lends weight to the theories that point to a mutation of the corona virus or a completely new virus as the cause of the disease.
Because the cause has yet to be discovered, there still are no wonder drugs or preventive injections against the disease. It is still safer to refrain from any trips to China, Hong Kong and the Hanoi area of Vietnam where the disease is now prevailing. It is also safer to avoid international conferences where many members of these countries are also present.
If this disease does enter our country, it would be most likely through incoming tourists from Southeast Asia. Therefore, the focus of prevention should be on tourists. It is said that a strange form of pneumonia had already been prevailing in the Guangdong province of China since the end of last year. The number of patients in Hong Kong is climbing everyday. Considering the fact that there are thousands of tourists arriving everyday, we can’t ignore the possibility that this disease could enter our country.
Those who have returned from any traveling in the Southeast Asian region should check their health for at least 10 days on their return. If you start getting symptoms of pneumonia, see a doctor immediately. Be sure to tell the doctor that you’d been to the Southeast Asian region recently and whether you had met any patients with similar symptoms during your trip.
The media here has been calling the disease “gwejil,” which literally translates to “mysterious disease.” The word carries a nuance that it is a fatal disease with nothing known about it and nothing to do about it. The media should refrain from using this word that cause a vague sense of terror among the public and use the term “severe acute respiratory syndrome” or “SARS.”
When AIDS first became a prevailing concern, it was talked about as a disease that “morally loose” people caught and as a curse from heaven. The media would do well to remember that such inappropriate reports had bred a wrong perception of AIDS among the public that has become a serious obstacle in the prevention of AIDS.
The government should build a preventive system against imported infectious diseases. Infectious diseases of older times still prevail in developing countries. New forms of infections disease are appearing continuously around the world: Japan had an E. coli O157 scare in 1996, Hong Kong saw a fit of “bird flu” in 1997, Malaysia had a bout of brain fever in 1998 and the United States had a West Nile virus infection in New York in 1999. These diseases can arrive here in two or three days from any corner of the world, thanks to airplane travels.
It is wrong to think that we can now conquer infectious disease because we have joined the rank of advanced countries. This is the lesson that Hong Kong’s SARS bout is teaching us.
* The writer is a professor of internal medicine at Seoul National University Hospital.
by Oh Myoung-don