Vermont health officials monitor SARS outbreak

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(Host) Area health officials are keeping a close eye on daily developments in the SARS outbreak, especially now that the disease has struck across the border in Canada.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, was first reported in China and Hong Kong but has since spread to other parts of Asia and now to North America. Canadian officials report more than three hundred suspected cases of SARS in Toronto, resulting in 16 deaths.

Kathy Kirkland is the epidemiologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover. Kirkland says the same staff and resources that were assembled to deal with a bioterrorist attack have been mobilized for SARS. Much of the hospital’s work has involved getting the word out about the symptoms of the disease and who is at risk. SARS symptoms include high fever and problems breathing.

Kirkland says so far the have been no suspected cases of SARS, but the hospital is tracking some people for signs of the disease.

(Kirkland) “We are following several people who work here who have traveled to high risk areas who do not have symptoms. We’re basically calling them every day to check and make sure they haven’t developed symptoms. I think we’re pretty aggressively trying to know who the high risk populations are and then screen them pretty carefully.”

(Zind) Susan Schoenfeld is an epidemiologist with the Vermont Health Department. Schoenfeld says news of the SARS outbreak in Canada prompted a rapid effort by the department to get the word out to hospitals, because of Toronto’s proximity.

(Schoenfeld) “It was last Friday afternoon that the case definition changed to include Toronto exposure and we not only sent out our email list to our hospital contacts late that afternoon but called the emergency departments and pointed it out to them.”

(Zind) Schoenfeld says the department is getting calls from people who want to know more about SARS and want to know if they should change their travel plans.

(Schoenfeld)”The biggest single thing we’re hearing is questions about travel to Montreal, which is very common from this area. There really are no advisories or alerts for any place in Canada except Toronto.”

(Zind) Customs officials at the Vermont border say they’re following the SARS outbreak, but so far haven’t taken steps to determine if people crossing into the U.S. are travelling from Toronto. Customs is providing its employees with face masks to protect against the disease.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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