Internet helps Taiwan fight back as SARS returns

Plans to prevent another outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Taiwan, including sharing information on the disease with other cities over the Internet, were put into action Wednesday as government health officials announced that a 44-year-old lab researcher had tested positive for the disease.

The infected man, who was not identified, is a researcher at the National Defense University’s Institute of Preventive Medicine in Taipei, where he had been working with the SARS virus in a high-containment laboratory since June, said Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control (CDC). The man is suspected of having become infected with SARS at the laboratory, it said, noting additional investigation is required to determine the exact method of infection.

This is the second case of a laboratory worker becoming infected by the virus in recent months. A similar case occurred in Singapore in September.

For months, Taipei has been bracing for the possibility that SARS could return with the onset of winter. The city has implemented a range of measures that include stepping up preparations to contain the spread of a disease outbreak and using technology to share information with other cities to track the spread of the disease if an outbreak occurs, said Dr. Hang Chang, the city’s health commissioner, in an interview on Saturday.

The Inter-City SARS Prevention Forum (ISPF) is a crucial part of these efforts. Originally proposed by Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, the ISPF is a collaborative effort set up between the departments of health in six cities — Taipei, Hanoi, Toronto, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore — to share information on certain infectious diseases, including SARS, in the hopes of preventing a disease outbreak from spreading between different cities, Chang said.

Information on outbreaks of diseases such as SARS and Japanese Encephalitis, a mosquito-borne viral infection endemic through much of South and East Asia, is shared between cities by e-mail and on the ISPF Web site, which can be accessed by member cities, Chang said.

“Once anyone is suspected to be infected by SARS we can monitor the situation and we can report the situation step-by-step, day-by-day or even hour-by-hour to our friends around the world by e-mail and by the Web page,” Chang said.

In this way, ISPF member cities are able to track the progress of a suspected SARS case even before it is confirmed, allowing them time to take preventative measures of their own, as necessary, he said.

In Taipei, the first confirmed case of SARS in months has put the ISPF system to use and has prompted the government to strengthen measures taken to prevent the spread of the disease. From Monday, visitors to government offices and schools in Taipei must have their temperature checked to prevent the spread of flu and SARS, Chang said. To prevent SARS from spreading within hospitals, patients with a fever will be examined before admission to hospitals or emergency rooms, and those suspected of having SARS will be sent to negative-pressure isolation wards, he said. In such wards, air pressure is slightly lower than outside so that, for example, microorganisms do not blow out on currents of air when a door is opened.

From 12 a.m. local time on Dec. 18, travellers from Taiwan with a fever will not be allowed to leave the country without a health certificate from a hospital, the CDC said. All laboratory work on the SARS virus will be suspended until safety measures have been reviewed and approved by the government, it said. If no new SARS case is confirmed within the next 21 days, the restrictions on travellers will be lifted, it said.

Lessons drawn from Taipei’s experience during the SARS outbreak earlier this year have helped lay the groundwork for preparations to prevent another outbreak of the disease, Chang said. The city has increased the number of beds in negative-pressure isolation rooms to 700 from 150, with 122 of the city’s negative-pressure isolation units at Heping Hospital, which has been designated by the city to handle SARS patients, he said.

“If we have SARS again, our strategy is to keep all of the SARS patients in a single hospital and not spread them out to other hospitals,” Chang said. “Heping Hospital has a lot of experience fighting SARS. Last time, they fought against SARS for one month.”

Hospitals in Taipei have also stockpiled protective gear for doctors and nurses and have trained health workers on how to handle SARS patients, including how to transport patients over isolated routes to negative-pressure wards and to handle more than 40 different medical scenarios, including how to treat a pregnant SARS patient who is ready to give birth, Chang said.