Illness Disrupts Travel to SE Asia

Health officials divided on warnings; tour operators don't expect cancellations

By: Lisa Jennings

Health officials worldwide were on alert last week following the outbreak of a dangerous respiratory illness that has been spread, at least in part, by travelers to and from Southeast Asia.

The cause of the illness, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), had not been determined as of March 19, but physicians suspected the paramyxoviridae family of viruses. At that point about 264 cases, including nine deaths, had been reported. Eleven of the cases under investigation were in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta last week recommended that non-essential travel to Southeast Asia be postponed, but the World Health Organization, which is coordinating efforts to identify and treat the illness, said travel restrictions were not necessary.

Tour operators serving Southeast Asia said last week that they would continue to monitor the situation, but did not expect cancellations.

In fact, Hima Singh of Asian Pacific, based in Northridge, Calif., said that one group called last week to move up their trip, hoping for flights to China to be less crowded.

The countries where residents or visitors were affected, include: Canada, China (specifically, Taiwan and Hong Kong), Germany, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Thailand, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Chinese officials previously reported 305 cases of an illness that appears to be SARS, including five deaths, in Guangdong province. That outbreak, which began in November and reportedly ended in late February, has not been linked definitively to the current cases, but health officials suspect it will be.

The infection appears to be transmitted person-to-person, primarily affecting those who have been in close contact with infected people, such as health care workers and family members. There is no evidence of transmission through casual contact.

Quarantine officials last week were handing out information cards at airports across the country, where both direct and indirect flights from Southeast Asia were arriving, as well as notifying cruise- and passenger-ship travelers from the region. A majority of the cases have been reported in Hong Kong, Singapore and Hanoi.

The cards list symptoms; warn travelers to monitor their health for up to seven days after trips; and recommend that they see a doctor, if they develop a fever with a cough or have difficulty breathing.

Airline and airport officials have been advised to watch for passengers with symptoms, which include a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and a cough or breathing problems.

One floor of a hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, was closed for disinfection last week, after it was discovered that seven of the SARS victims had stayed there, between Feb. 12 and March 2. A local resident, supposedly the “index” patient who spread the disease, visited a friend at the hotel during that period.

Health officials said there have been no reports of illness among the staff at that hotel, or hotels in New York and Georgia, where infected patients stayed.