Vermont’s SARS connection

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire says that the world-wide effort to contain the SARS epidemic has a Vermont connection.

(Daulaire) Seven people stood waiting for an elevator in a hotel lobby. One of them coughed. Together for a chance moment, the group quickly scattered to sightseeing buses, business lunches and airport terminals. Within hours, some had flown half the world away. Within days, three of the seven were dead, including the man who coughed. That’s how Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – SARS – spread from the Chinese countryside to the world.

A doctor who had been treating a puzzling group of patients in southern China took a bus to Hong Kong, checked into the hotel, and within a day infected travelers to Hanoi, Singapore and Toronto. Those travelers then lit new fuses of infection among friends, family and strangers, and the disease exploded into a global threat.

Since February, when SARS took that giant step, more than 7,000 people have been infected in 25 countries, from Mongolia to the USA, and more than 500 have died. Even these figures may be low – no one’s yet sure that the Chinese government has told the whole truth about its SARS epidemic.

And the facts are frightening: A highly contagious new disease, which kills on the average one of every seven people it infects, has fulfilled global health experts’ worst warnings by circling the planet in a matter of weeks. If it were to spread widely throughout the world’s population, it could kill over 60 million people.

But the most important fact about the SARS epidemic may be that – almost as soon as the reported numbers of an unusual new pneumonia started coming in – crisis teams of doctors and scientists were in hot pursuit. Led by the World Health Organization, health workers around the world have been laboring nonstop to keep SARS from spreading still further. This unprecedented mobilization of global resources and determination to meet a fast-breaking emergency would not have been possible without help from – of all places – Vermont. It was Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy who sponsored a 1997 bill to increase American spending on global infectious disease control by $50 million, including a crucial boost for the World Health Organization’s outbreak response capability.

Now, Vermonters don’t like to throw money away. And a hypothetical disease breaking out in a faraway country sure doesn’t sound like a Green Mountain concern. But when I returned by car from Ottawa to Vermont just a few weeks ago, I saw the importance of that money when I was asked at the border, “Have you been in Toronto? Do you have a cough?” Without that Vermont based initiative, it would have taken the World Health Organization months to respond to the emergence of SARS – by which time the disease, could have established an inextinguishable global presence, even here.

Vermont could have learned the awful truth of what Senator Leahy told Congress six years ago: In our time, “any infectious disease – even the world’s most deadly virus – is only an airplane flight away from our shores.” Preparedness saves lives, even when it’s not military.

This is Nils Dauliare from Norwich.

Dr. Nils Daulaire is president of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction, Vermont.

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