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B.C. health authorities on the lookout for SARS

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In the realm of infectious and potentially fatal diseases, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) is still a relative lightweight. When it’s caught in time, most patients have an excellent chance of surviving, and the number of people infected or who have died from the disease still pales in comparison to cases of influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Still, it’s a new disease with potentially fatal consequences, and very little is known about it and how it spreads, although most of the people infected were in close proximity to someone coughing and sneezing. It does not appear to be airborne, contrary to earlier reports.

A few reported cases in Canada have spread to about 129 suspect or probable cases and four deaths in the country in two weeks. Any time that hospitals and schools are closed in Toronto, airline passengers scrutinized in Vancouver, and people quarantined, there is some cause for alarm.

At press time, there were two infected people in Greater Vancouver, and about 20 people who had been in contact with them have voluntarily gone into quarantine.

While things are quieter than they are in Toronto, where most of the Canadian cases have been reported, the Ministry of Health Planning and Ministry of Health Services have taken a number of steps to prevent further spread of the disease.

"We’re taking it very seriously," said Dr. Paul Martiquet, the medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

"The reason for the concern is that in certain people, the virus seems to be deadly. Fortunately it’s not all people.

"The fear comes from the fact that we’re not really sure what the virus is that is causing the disease, or why it is just appearing at this time," said Martiquet.

Still, the message is for people not to worry.

"If you haven’t travelled to South East Asia, or been in contact with the disease, the risk of contracting the disease is very low."

One thing that people can do to protect themselves is to wash their hands frequently. Like the common cold, doctors believe that the disease spreads by sneezing or coughing when someone comes into contact with nasal drippings.

On Wednesday, April 2, the B.C. government announced that it was taking the following steps to halt the spread of SARS.

• Every suspected and probable case in B.C. is being isolated immediately, and placed in quarantine for monitoring.

• Anyone seeking medical attention with a fever, and who has travelled to areas of the world where the disease has surfaced or had contact with another SARS case is being screened.

• More tan 4,000 physicians across B.C. have received a letter from the provincial health officer making them aware of the signs and symptoms of SARS, as well as infection prevention procedures, and how to act quickly if a case surfaces.

• The ministry has identified 300 negative pressure beds – isolation rooms – in 26 hospitals across the province to ensure adequate capacity if the number of cases grows.

• To ensure that emergency rooms are not overwhelmed, the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority is setting up a separate SARS Clinic. They have also set up a SARS hotline that can be reached at 604-708-5300, 1-800-454-8302, or 1-866-215-4700.

• Schools, day cares and other care facilities have also been notified, and provided with a list of infection prevention and health-monitoring practices for students and staff.

• People are being screened coming off planes from affected areas by Health Canada quarantine officers.

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