OPINION

Risk of killer virus

The rapid spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that has put the World Health Organization and every government around the world on alert, is also causing our own health services concern; and rightly so. Greece is not only at risk from any travelers from afar but from neighboring Albania where, rumor has it, there are cases of the virus, perhaps because of the country’s past links with China that have been maintained in the form of frequent bilateral contacts. As the Greek-Albania border is known to be less than impermeable, those in charge at the Center for the Control of Infectious Diseases are naturally worried that SARS could enter the country, and under conditions that would prevent early diagnosis and containment. Awareness of the risk of infection should be considered along with the lack of organization and infrastructure on the part of the Greek State, which is unused to dealing with situations such as these. Unrestricted immigration has already shown how imperfect border controls are, not to mention controls on movement within the country. Only a year ago, cases of coxsackie viral infections showed how difficult it was to control panic and how easily our hospitals could become paralyzed by a rush on their services. Concern regarding these well-known failings is heightened when one considers that SARS is not easy to distinguish from common pneumonia and that the virus is mutating. This makes it difficult to make an early diagnosis and take effective preventive measures against an epidemic, particularly in crowded urban areas. Greece’s lack of organization and experience in dealing with such infectious diseases multiplies the risks and should be cause for the authorities to go on high alert – not only the health services that are already struggling to organize wards, diagnosis and care networks, but also police and civil authorities. The most effective way to protect the country is to make border and domestic controls more effective and to inform people how to protect themselves so that they don’t rush to hospitals at the first symptom. There is a very real risk and dealing with it should be the top priority of the State and any private organizations that can be of help. Isolated measures and map exercises based on wishful thinking are not enough.