A World Health Organization (WHO) official says SARS is having an unnecessary negative economic impact on Asia - as the public perceives the virus to be a greater risk than it actually is. The WHO has announced steps to address the problem.
David Heymann, WHO chief of communicable diseases, says his agency this week will introduce a new classification system - labeling nations as low, middle, and high risk instead of being simply classified as a SARS infected country. The World Health Organization hopes the new classifications will help address the severe economic impact the disease is having in affected countries.
Mr. Heymann announced the plan in Bangkok Monday night ahead of the emergency SARS summit of the 10-member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China and Hong Kong. "Unfortunately the public perceived a greater risk than they should be perceiving. They perceive that the risk is much greater than the risk actually is," he says. "SARS is not transmitted to people walking on main street in any city or any town. Wearing a mask therefore walking down the street will not prevent SARS."
Asian nations are seeing huge drops in tourism revenues and local businesses that cater to the public are feeling the pinch. International financial groups have been revising growth and profit forecasts downward on nearly a daily basis. Hong Kong - one of the cities with the highest number of SARS cases - is having such financial problems that the government last week announced an emergency package worth more than a $1 billion to help residents and business owners weather the health crisis over the next three months. Mr. Heymann says part of the public panic was stirred when the WHO issued travel warnings for Hong Kong, China, and Toronto, Canada. But he says the public does not understand the WHO recommendations regarding international travel. "Aside from that, international travel should continue at a normal rate, tourism should continue at a normal rate. Because the risk factors are such that this disease does not spread easily and it does not spread by casual contact," says Mr. Heymann. "It spreads by contact with hospitals or patients with SARS."
WHO has documented only five confirmed cases of SARS transmission aboard aircraft, despite the fact there have been more than 20 million air travelers since the disease first appeared in southern China last November.
SARS, a virulent, sometimes deadly, form of pneumonia, has claimed more than 300 lives and infected more than five-thousand people world-wide.