THE FUTURE may practically have everybody wearing surgical masks. People will wear those not only to safeguard themselves from the heavily polluted air but also from unseen killer viruses it carries.

But in Hongkong and in some other Asian countries, this is already the scenario. Surgical and industrial masks have become fashionable in these places because of the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a still unknown disease.

As of this writing, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, SARS has afllicted more than 4,000 persons and killed almost 300 persons worldwide. This has pushed health-conscious Filipinos to the nearest drugstore for surgical masks, vitamins, and other drugs. The media feasted on the issue and hospitals are racing to diagnose the first case of SARS in the country. Tourism is threatened as travelers are discouraged from going on vacation abroad, especially in SARS-afflicted countries.

What is SARS?

According to Dr. Margarita Cayco of the UST Hospital (USTH) Department of Infectious Medicine, SARS is an infectious disease with primary respiratory symptoms of cough and shortness of breath accompanied by fever. WHO said SARS is a form of pneumonia with prolonged symptoms.

SARS can be contracted through droplets from an infected person who coughs or sneezes into the air. However, in an interview with TIME magazine, Dr. John Nicholls of the University of Hong Kong said the virus has somewhat mutated, which it makes it deadlier.

He said it is not airborne, but is transmitted by an infected person through the things he touches. Furthermore, the virus can live for a few hours outside a “host.”

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According to Cayco, SARS-afflicted individuals manifest symptoms like headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash, and diarrhea. An infected person first experiences high fever after which the disease spreads throughout the body in two to seven days, but it sometimes reaches 10, depending on the body’s immune system.

Dr. Cayco said that according to the last update of WHO, SARS could have been caused by the corona virus, the same one that causes common colds, sore throat, and pneumonia. It causes one-third of known respiratory illnesses.

Detection and treatment

Cayco said diagnostic tests for SARS are available at the USTH. These include chest x-ray; red blood cell (RBC), white blood cell (WBC), and platelet counts; creatine phosphokinase; liver function tests; C reactive protein and urea and electrolytes test. Tests for standard causes of pneumonia like blood cultures, test for influenza and respiratory syncitial virus, urine test, and cold agglutinin tests can also be had.

Cayco said while detection is possible, there is still no cure for SARS. She added that numerous antibiotic therapies, broad-spectrum antiviral medicines for typical pneumonia like macrolides and the newer generation quinolones (Avelox, Tequin, Levox) can be used, although their effects are still unclear.

Cayco said the USTH and the UST Committee on Infection Control has formulated contingency plans for patients with SARS. She said masks should be worn at all times by visitors, staff, doctors, and nurses entering the room of SARS patients. Cayco said an N95 mask should be used.

N95 masks can filter 0.3-micrometer particles. Surgical masks are less effective but can be used, Cayco said.

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On the national level, the DOH has issued an advisory asking Filipinos returning from countries with SARS to go into self-quarantine to help prevent the spread of the virus. Preventive measures like washing hands thoroughly, applying alcohol and disinfectants can help rid the spread of the virus. Likewise, drinking plenty of water, eating foods high in vitamin C and restricting coffee intake can help increase the immune system against infection.

DOH Secretary Dr. Manuel Dayrit advised the public that persons with SARS-like symptoms should proceed immediately to the quarantine section of the airport or seaport upon arrival.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Canada, and the United States are among the countries that are reported to have a high number of SARS cases.

Cayco advised that, if possible, trips to these countries should be avoided.

“The most important measure to prevent SARS is consciousness. One must be aware of the symptoms and if the symptoms develop, seek medical attention immediately,” Dr. Cayco said. Brix Gil M. Bayuga

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