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Old May 21st, 2007, 06:37 PM   #1
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SARS - When Hong Kong Stood Still

SARS an open wound in post-handover Hong Kong

HONG KONG, May 21, 2007 (AFP) - It was a time of fear and suspicion, when bars and restaurants emptied and people shunned contact on the streets. In the decade since its return to China, nothing quite shook Hong Kong like the SARS crisis.

Now, at Hong Kong's monument to the seven health workers who died battling to contain the highly infectious respiratory disease, the smiles on the brass figurines hide the terror of a city that was nearly brought to its knees.

Known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), it sneaked up without warning early in 2003.

Although it killed a relatively small number of people -- 299 died in Hong Kong during the four-month outbreak out of a population of some seven million -- the fear it engendered inflicted huge psychological and economic damage.

It also remains a genuine concern as bird flu strikes other parts of Asia, threatening an even deadlier epidemic.

"SARS was the first infectious disease to cause global alarm," said Malik Peiris, professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong and leader of a team that discovered the source of the disease and was eventually able to halt it.

"As such it was a pointer to what is likely to happen, but in much greater proportion, should there be a bird flu pandemic," Peris said.

SARS remains the nadir of Hong Kong's post-colonial history, an event that swept away the last vestige of optimism after the June 30, 1997 reunification with China.

As the virus began picking off victims, confidence evaporated.

A World Health Organisation travel notice kept tourists and investors away, bringing the local airline industry -- already handicapped by the September 11 attacks -- close to collapse.

Streets were deserted as people shunned social contact. Surgical face masks became the norm, giving the sea of humanity on the subways and buses an eerily blank appearance.

"I'd just come back to Hong Kong from a few years overseas and the city I returned to was so different," said Neil Dickens, a British executive at a printing company who has lived on and off here for the past 12 years.

"The bars were quiet -- if they were still open: a lot went under due to SARS -- and the level of buzz was just nil," said the 39-year old.

"It had an air of abandon as if tumbleweed would drift across the street at any minute."

Taxi driver Leung Wai-man recalled the fear.

"It was like something from a film -- nobody trusted anyone, everyone was suspected of having the illness," said the 53-year-old.

"If anyone sneezed in my taxi, I'd immediately open the window or put the air conditioning on full blast. My wife even refused to go out."

The fallout from SARS was enormous.

The government's slow response sparked public anger that eventually led to the early resignation of Hong Kong's then political leader Tung Chee-hwa.

New clinical practices were introduced. The Centre for Health Protection, dedicated to halting the spread of infectious diseases, was created.

Most noticeably, fear of SARS engendered a new sense of public hygiene.

Advice notices proliferated on television, radio and in the press; street cleaning teams were bolstered to clear away rat infestation; stiff on-the-spot fines were introduced for littering and spitting.

"At the time, the government had devoted most of its health resources to hospitals -- frontline services and infectious disease combat just weren't a priority," said Tim Pang, community organiser for the Society for Community Organisations, a public advocacy group.

"Now, the government has made it a priority, and has really improved the situation."

The lessons have informed the battle against H5N1 bird flu, a virus that emerged some six years before SARS but has not yet mutated into a form easily transmissible between humans.

Public hygiene programmes, stringent quarantine rules and border controls, and health screens introduced to ward off SARS, are now commonplace.

SARS was eventually beaten because Peiris' team discovered the virus was only infectious late in its life cycle, meaning patients, if detected early, could be treated before it spread.

The same team is at the forefront of research into bird flu, but has found it is infectious at a much earlier stage.

"We don't have the sort of time we had with SARS," said Peiris. "The SARS efforts will probably not work with bird flu."

But perhaps the greatest aid against the spread of bird flu is Hong Kong's collective memory of SARS. "You cannot underestimate what it did to Hong Kong, or how it affected people," said Pang.

"The city was scared."
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