Among the hallmarks characterizing the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are a number of ailments either never before seen in the United States or previously unknown to mankind. The latest such infection to beset the population of the world in general and New York City in particular is SARS, or Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This is an illness resembling pneumonia and recently found to be caused by a coronavirus similar to the organism that can give rise to the common cold.
SARS was first reported in China and has spread throughout Southeast Asia, North America and Europe. As of last week, more than 3,200 cases have been reported worldwide; 159 people have died. In the United States, 208 cases have been reported, but no deaths have resulted. In New York City, also as of last week, 10 cases have been reported throughout the five boroughs. Again, no deaths due to SARS have been reported.
SARS frightens people for several reasons. This is, evidently, a new disease, in that no cases have ever been reported before. It seems resistant to most antibiotics and other treatment modalities. It appears to be contagious, easily contracted by people who have traveled to areas where SARS is prevalent. There appears to be no escaping it.
The picture is not all bleak. Scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) have succeeded in identifying the virus that causes SARS. Armed with this information, virologists and biologists can develop diagnostic tests, treatments and, most important, vaccines. Like other viral illnesses that have been identified and studied, once a vaccine is developed for SARS, this disease will be rendered manageable, even if it is not completely eradicated. There is reason for optimism. In fact, as more information about the disease has become known, the number of cases diagnosed in the United States by the federal Centers for Disease Control, 208, has dropped to 35 as the CDC has decided to adopt the more srtringent WHO standard for determining whether a patient has in actuality contracted SARS.
As of this writing, the biggest threat posed by SARS appears to be the fear it generates. Airlines are cutting back flights to Asia because travelers refuse to go abroad to areas where SARS has been found, for fear of contracting the disease. Travel agents are seeing a cutback in business as well. Overseas trade shows are seeing a drop in registration. Tourism in the Chinatowns of Manhattan and Flushing has dwindled markedly. Across the city, Asian restaurants, stores and services are losing customers who fear contracting SARS—some are reporting a 90 percent drop in business from 2002 figures.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed this problem in a forthright manner when he and several Chinese business leaders had lunch at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown last Thursday and made certain that cameras recorded his savoring bay scallops and corn. He then held a press conference at which he noted that mindless panic over SARS was hurting business in the neighborhood.
The mayor’s and the state Health Department’s attitudes--the location and condition of each of the 15 cases diagnosed is available on the state web site--will do much to help to alleviate the fears which are the most damaging element of SARS. The more that is known about this disease, the less frightening it will be, and already ample knowledge exists. We have bested other diseases; the key to this one is within our grasp.
What Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to say about the Depression era economy applies to the SARS crisis: the only thing we have to fear itself. It’s time to put the fears aside and relax in the power of our knowledge and proven ability to cope with this problem.