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Apr 1, 2003

Medical authorities prepare for SARS

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Were it not for the war now raging across Iraq, it would be dominating the headlines of every country in the world. But the fact that the spread of a mysterious and deadly disease is being overshadowed in the media does not make it any less of a threat. Today I checked with medical authorities to find out just what kind of risk Belize is facing.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

As international reports continue to flood in on the global spread of possible SARS infections, local authorities are preparing for the worst. Doctors have determined that SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, once believed to be transmitted only through person-to-person contact when someone sick coughs or sneezes on someone else, is now airborne.

Janelle Chanona

“How probable is it that SARS could come to Belize?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie, Director of Health Services, Belize

“Anyone that have been in the high risk areas, in Europe, South East Asia or Canada and comes to Belize could bring the virus and spread it. Also, people from Belize that visit these areas could get contaminated and then bring the virus here.”

“The probability is high that SARS will reach Belize. In light of that information, I decided to bring together an ad hoc committee with representation from experts in public health and clinical medicine, including the private sector.”

Because of the profound likelihood of SARS cases in Belize, Vanzie and his committee met for the first time this morning in an attempt to take a proactive stance toward the deadly virus and ready their resources.

Janelle Chanona

“Are you confident as Director of Health Services that we will be able to manage and treat cases if we do diagnose them in Belize?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“There’s no specific treatment to cure the disease. As you know that it is viral in nature and so far the few viral treatment that is available, the disease has not responded to it. So the treatment is symptomatic, meaning keeping the patient alive until the disease takes its course and disappear.”

The challenge with SARS is that its symptoms are non-specific and include those associated with the common flu.

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“It starts with high fever, a hundred and three to a hundred and four, and other common flu symptoms like sneezing, dry cough and probably the most pathos pneumonic symptoms right now will be that of shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing.”

Janelle Chanona

“How is it being treated right now?”

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“It is symptomatic, meaning you treat the person for the symptoms, for the high temperature, for the dehydration if any occur, support the breathing system if the person goes into respiratory failure, then you put the person on a mechanical ventilator.”

There is no test to determine whether someone has SARS. But if patients have a high temperature and a cough and difficulty breathing, you should see a doctor, especially if you have been to a high risk SARS area. With cases already identified in Canada and the United States, two countries where most of our visitors come from, the virus poses a significant threat to Belize’s already vulnerable tourism industry. Here too, Vanzie and team have had to determine control measures.

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“Regarding protocols to follow if they identify a case aboard a plane, in the sense that they will have to notify the health authorities in advance and there will be a protocol at the airport for managing those patients and channelling them to the appropriate treatment facility. In the case of ships, if we have notice of an outbreak abroad the ship, the most appropriate public health measure to take there would be to recommend for those people not to land and for the ship to be quarantined.”

To date no travel restrictions have been imposed and the important thing here is for Belizeans not to panic. No one in the country has been diagnosed with SARS and it could very well stay that way.

Dr. Errol Vanzie

“The most important advice would be that if they don’t have to, don’t travel to countries where the disease is endemic at present, because the risk is high that they might become contaminated or infected.”

So far it is believed that over sixty people worldwide have died from SARS.

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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