New threats

Remarks by Health Minister Costas Stefanis yesterday over the dangers of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic and the extent to which it could jeopardize this country were aimed at reassuring the public, as the minister confirmed that no such case has been reported here and added that local authorities have taken all necessary measures to prepare clinics and set up an epidemic surveillance system at border checkpoints. However, Stefanis expressed his concern about the future, saying that no checks can guarantee 100 percent security, and stressed that the emergence of the respiratory illness could foreshadow the arrival of new, potentially more deadly viruses in the future. The health minister noted how little we know about this deadly virus which has hit Southeastern Asia and underscored WHO concerns that the future could see more emerging threats to public health. Furthermore, Stefanis pointed out that the success of efforts to contain such epidemics depends largely on individual responsibility because «this sort of situation know no borders,» as free movement and economic exchange, coupled with the respect for individual rights, inevitably curtail the effectiveness of countermeasures. Stefanis’s courageous admittance that, regardless of the measures taken, we cannot exclude the possibility of a SARS outbreak in Greece, coupled with the estimation that SARS is not the last health risk that the world will see, highlight the need to re-examine our public health safeguards against the unknown danger, both in terms of priorities as well as tactics. In terms of priorities: because scientific estimates predict a surge in virus-related risks, meaning that the national health system can no longer classify them as an extraordinary phenomenon. And from the tactics perspective: because the speed and size of cross-boundary movement leave all countries little time to immunize themselves against outside threats. Given Greece’s deficit in terms of organization and infrastructure (in the private sector, as well) in dealing with such crises – as we experienced with the unchecked migration influx and people’s panicked reactions to the coxsackie viral infections which obstructed the functioning of hospitals – adapting to the new environment warrants radical restructuring and high alert. Greece must re-examine its public health system from scratch, treating the SARS outbreak as the first in a series of new threats.

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