‘Saved by other countries’ precautions’

“A potentially very dangerous story» is how Professor Haralambos Roussos, of Athens and McGill universities’ pulmonary medicine and intensive care departments, describes the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that has caused so many deaths, particularly in Asia, and put health services on the alert around the world. Roussos said, however, that it is not a pandemic. In this interview with Kathimerini, the professor emphasized that the virus is accompanied by a high mortality rate, yet in contrast to the usual viruses, it attacks young people as well. The fact that there have been no cases of SARS yet recorded in Greece, he said, is partly due to the measures taken early on in affected countries to prevent people with the virus from entering other countries. In general terms, what do we know about SARS? It is a virus that has mutated and there is no doubt that it kills. In Canada at this moment, the mortality rate is over 10 percent of the population affected. This is clearly a high percentage. It is also significant that it is killing younger people. This is not some virus that strikes only older people or very young children. It has been found in people aged 20, 30, 40 or 50 years of age, without the simultaneous occurrence of other diseases that would make them vulnerable. People from all these groups have developed SARS and died. Is there a high-risk group? There is vulnerable group. Unfortunately, it is the doctors, nurses and other medical staff who come into contact with the patients in the hospital. This causes huge problems in caring for these patients because, as you must realize, no matter how developed one’s altruism and missionary zeal, one cannot help thinking of one’s family, of oneself. This creates enormous problems. Unfortunately, we do not have effective drugs against it. There is one drug that can be prescribed but it is not a panacea. It helps a little but is not really effective and when the disease affects all the organs, the patient must be moved to intensive care, where there is a great possibility he or she will die. Are we talking about a pandemic? No, because up till now what has happened is that the virus has been distributed by people who have visited the areas affected by it. For example, in the USA, where preventive measures were taken early – they may also have been lucky – no one has died of the disease. There have been patients, travelers who had visited countries in southeast Asia, but the problem stayed there; it didn’t spread. The same thing happened in Germany. So we can’t talk about a pandemic but about a potentially very dangerous situation. Of course, we have to take precautions. I know that the Health Ministry and the Center for Infectious Diseases have been paying a great deal of attention to the question of SARS – and I myself am on some of the councils – and have taken various precautions in the likelihood that the disease does arrive in our country. However, it worries me that in Toronto, Canada, where the health system is so well organized, they have not yet been able to control the situation, as it seems that great difficulties in dealing with the disease have emerged. So if the danger can be contained, things go better, but if it begins to spread, that is when the situation becomes difficult. Are our health services prepared to deal with a case of SARS? I know they are trying. Now, whether the precautions will be effective, no one can know, as we have not yet been called upon to deal with the problem. Health Minister Costas Stefanis has been personally involved with this and has met with various ministers, other officials and scientists. At Evangelismos Hospital, in particular, the authorities are ensuring that there are special reception centers and wards for any suspicious cases, such as a special room within the intensive care unit, and so forth. But I repeat, I don’t know if these measures will be effective. I must be quite honest about that. Moreover, I cannot know if the airport and its health services, the main entry point to Greece, are properly prepared. Yet, in contrast to other European countries, there have not been any reported cases. Is this simply luck? It is partly a question of luck, but it can also be explained by the fact that other countries took precautions, so no one with the disease has entered Greece. Yet the question remains as to whether there are any carriers who might not have the disease themselves. However, it appears that the precautions taken and warnings issued in other countries have made people more careful, so the problem has been contained to a great extent. Of course, I must say that these days generally, with a number of viruses and microbes, are particularly sensitive and we know that when a virus begins to spread, an enormous effort is required to suppress it. Is this virus here to stay or will it be dealt with fairly quickly? I believe that the weather will improve and it will be wiped out. So, the weather has something to do with it? Climate has a great effect on viruses. They usually flare up in winter rather than in summer. I believe that this will affect this particular virus. Of course, we are not yet in a position to know exactly what it is. What we do know is that we are dealing with a virus that kills people when they are at a «strong» age and also that it infects medical and paramedical staff. There are very many patients. Official sources have put the total at more than 3,000 patients, but the real total is probably far higher.