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AIDS Researchers Criticize World's "Overreaction" to SARS

April 29, 2003

Sensational media coverage of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has killed 326 people worldwide, has created a sense of panic that could overwhelm common-sense measures for containing the virus, according to Dr. David Baltimore. A leading AIDS researcher, Baltimore won the 1975 Nobel Prize for medicine and is president of the California Institute of Technology.

AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho, who heads the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York, agrees with Baltimore that there has been an overreaction to SARS. "Obviously, the fear comes from the fact that this is a novel disease," Ho said. "Many aspects of this epidemic are still mysterious. Fear of SARS is outrunning SARS per se." AIDS kills virtually everyone it infects without treatment and 20 years into the epidemic there is no cure and no vaccine. In contrast, 94 percent of SARS patients recover.

Baltimore said the World Health Organization's moves have been appropriate, such as the controversial recommendation against travel to Toronto, where 21 people have died from SARS. But boycotts of Chinese-owned businesses and scenes of people in Hong Kong wearing surgical masks show that the public does not understand the real dangers, Baltimore said. "As much overreaction, there has been a lack of balance, of putting it into perspective, because it is a real problem, no question," Baltimore said. "But people clearly have reacted to it with a level of fear that is incommensurate with the size of the problem, and I think it is getting in the way of a reasonable response."

The government in China, where SARS appears to have originated late last year, has been criticized for understating the initial outbreak, but officials there have said they feared creating the sort of panic that has been seen. "This thing literally never would have happened on anything like the scale it happened if the Chinese had been open about it from the beginning," Baltimore said. WHO has praised the response of Vietnam, which immediately called for international help in handling its own outbreak.

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Excerpted from:
Boston Globe
04.29.03; Reuters

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