At least 24 people in New York State are suspected of contracting mild cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, the mysterious new deadly disease which first surfaced in China. According to the World Health Organization's most recent statistics, more than 2,000 people from 16 countries are suspected of having the disease.
So far, everyone in the New York area suspected of contracting SARS was exposed to the disease while traveling in Southeast Asia.
Dr. Don Weiss is the director of surveillance at the New York City Department of Health's bureau of communicable disease. He warned that because New York is a hub for international travel, with a large Chinese community, public health officials must take the necessary precautions to prevent an outbreak of the acute respiratory disease that has caused the deaths of at least 78 people worldwide. "New York being a hub, being an economic hub, there is lots of travel for business back and forth to Hong Kong and China, there is a fairly large Chinese community here that travels back and forth. It is a densely populated city and all these things raise our concern for any epidemic and more so because this is seemingly coming from Southeast Asia and I think that is why we are so hyper-alert to it," he said.
Dr. Weiss said that so far, SARS cases in New York have been mild and do not require hospitalization. The disease does not appear to be spreading.
Although city officials say they are working closely with the national Center For Disease Control, which is at the forefront of international efforts to control and isolate the virus, some lawmakers in New York say more needs to be done, especially because the state borders Canada.
At least six people have died in Canada of SARS and more than 130 cases are suspected or confirmed. The virus has also shut down several hospitals in Toronto.
While trying to prevent widespread panic, especially in New York's Chinatown, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer called on the federal government for help. "We need help for the SARS cases here in the United States, like the government has been doing for cases abroad," said Senator Schumer. "First, though, I want to emphasize that New Yorkers should not panic about rumors and fears about SARS and by all means should not avoid areas of New York with higher concentration of Asian-Americans, like Chinatown in Manhattan and Flushing, [Queens]."
Mr. Schumer made his comments following reports that tourists and residents were staying away from Chinatown, which is home to more than 150-thousand Chinese immigrants.
Doctor Alan Tso, the director of a community health center in Chinatown said that despite fears of transmission, there is no SARS outbreak in the neighborhood. "I just want to reiterate that there is no case of SARS in Chinatown," he said.
Nonetheless, health officials here are on the lookout for symptoms of SARS, which appears like many other viruses with pneumonia-like symptoms of a fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.