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SARS Outbreaks Ease in Asia, but Stress Level Remains High - 2003-06-02


For the first time since it started reporting, China says it has no new cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. But as the outbreaks in Asia fade, attention is turning to the psychological damage the disease has wrought.

Chinese health officials say their are no new cases of SARS in 24 hours.

China, where the disease is thought to have originated, has the world's largest outbreak, with 5,328 patients, 332 of whom have died.

The World Health Organization says that although China earlier gave out inaccurate information about the outbreak, the country's current figures on SARS appear to be sound.

SARS outbreaks in much of Asia have been slowing dramatically in recent weeks.

Taiwan reported four new cases, giving the island a total of 684. SARS has claimed at least 80 lives on Taiwan.

Hong Kong's outbreak also is subsiding. Four new infections were reported Monday, but the number of new cases has remained below five for 19 days. The city has seen more than 1,700 SARS cases.

The death toll in the territory continues to climb with SARS claiming two more lives on Monday. One of the victims was a doctor - the eighth medical worker to have died from the disease in the city. SARS has killed 282 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong television stations have featured live broadcasts of the funerals of medical workers as well as interviews with their distressed colleagues and family members. Some psychologists say the outpouring of emotion has heightened anxiety over the disease.

Antoinette Lee, a psychologist at Hong Kong University, said that stress related to SARS will likely remain despite the decline in cases.

"A certain level of stress is good, … and in the case of SARS the public was really too lax in the very beginning, so the initial level of stress was very constructive," said Ms. Lee, "but later on people were under at first an acute level of stress and then later on a very chronic level of stress. It becomes maladaptive when it begins to interfere with our lives."

She says preliminary studies by the university detected a high level of stress among half of the students surveyed.

Dr. Lee says anxiety becomes dangerous when it causes insomnia, headaches, and an irrational fear of public places.

Studies at another university in Hong Kong reveal that most recovered SARS patients show signs of serious mental trauma such as flashbacks, irritability and angry outbursts.

Worldwide SARS has claimed 771 lives out of 8,300 infections.

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