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May 29, 2003

9 Chinese-Belizeans quarantined as SARS precaution

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Belize’s rapid reaction to the global outbreak of the deadly SARS virus was, at the time, considered by many to be overly aggressive. Today, with the announcement that nine Belizeans, believed to the dual nationals of Taiwan or Mainland China, have been quarantined, the question arises as to whether the policy may have been too lax. This afternoon News 5′s Jacqueline Woods spoke to Director of Health Services Dr. Errol Vanzie, and while his assessment includes assurances to the public, the information that he declined to provide creates suspicion that the nation’s health policies may be infected with at least a small measure of politics.

Jacqueline Woods

“Dr. Vanzie when did Belize first become aware of the situation?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie, Director of Health Services

“This happened yesterday. We were called by C.D.C. in Atlanta, which is the Centre for Disease Control and informed that a group of people coming from China passing through L.A., two of the team were diagnosed with SARS. These people came into the country on Monday and we checked with the immigration authorities and got the relevant information and contacted these people, did a proper investigation as called for by the Protocol and then we decided based on the circumstances on the finding to quarantine these people at home.”

Jacqueline Woods

“These persons have been identified as nine Belizeans? Are they from China or Taiwan?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“They are Belizeans. We prefer not to identify their demographic characteristics.”

Jacqueline Woods

“When were they quarantined?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“Starting yesterday, last night.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Now the two cases that have been tested positive, how long did the nine persons remain in contact with them?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“We don’t know, we don’t have that information, but we assume that at least from Thursday last week they had contact with the cases, probably even before they became cases because they were part of one party. And so that in theory by now they should have between eight to ten days since the first contact.”

Jacqueline Woods

“So by now they should be showing some symptoms let’s say if they were infected?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“Well it’s a good sign that they are not showing symptoms at this stage, but for the purpose from the epidemiological perspective we have to quarantine them as of the last time that they had contact with the cases, which was Monday.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Is this a family? I know you’ll don’t want to divulge or give away their identity but are we talking about a family here or how are the two positive cases related to the nine?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“They are a family. One family.”

Jacqueline Woods

“How much of a threat is this situation to the country?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“Well, I think the risk is not that high in the sense that even though there are contacts, the probability is probably fifty to sixty percent that one of them will develop SARS. But because of the fact that they are asymptomatic at present, it means that if they are incubating the virus at present they have not transmitted the virus to anyone. And through the daily monitoring we will be able to detect if they are converting to SARS at any time and then take the appropriate action.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Explain to us how are they being monitored?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“Well the first thing that you do is to advise the suspected cases and to counsel them and create the awareness so they voluntarily agree to stay at home. They are not under arrest, but they are advised to stay at home in order to minimize contact with other people during that period of ten days. On a daily basis, a team from the hospital visit the home of these people randomly. They don’t go there at the same time, they don’t go there at different times in order to, not only to assess their status, but to see if they are complying with the quarantine.”

Jacqueline Woods

“Where are they quarantine?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“At home.”

Jacqueline Woods

“In Belize City?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“No, it’s not Belize City.”

While Vanzie would not divulge the original nationality of the quarantined family, sources close to the case tell News 5 that they are Taiwanese.* Viewers may recall that when the Immigration Department first took action just after Easter, they placed nationals of Mainland China on a list of persons banned from entering Belize. But later, when it became clear that SARS was spreading quickly in Taiwan, no such ban was placed on citizens of that country, which is a close ally and benefactor of Belize. It is worth noting that as holders of Belizean passports, the quarantined family would not have been subject to any such ban, even if it had been enacted. But the question does arise as to how the family made it through immigration at P.G.I.A., particularly since they would have known that two members of their party were detained in Los Angeles for SARS like symptoms. The first alert to the Ministry of Health, it should be recalled, came not from immigration officials at the airport, but from the C.D.C. in Atlanta…a full two days after the family arrived in Belize.

*Late information coming to News 5 after tonight’s newscast is that the quarantined family is not Taiwanese, but is in fact from the People’s Republic of China.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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