Red Cross continues response to widening SARS threat

Published: 25 April 2003 0:00 CET

The global SARS outbreak is having an impact on Red Cross and Red Crescent activities in affected countries. With over 4,400 cases and 263 deaths registered, national Red Cross Societies are continuing to take part in the response to the pneumonia-like disease.

The Federation’s regional and country delegations and national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are continuing to work in collaboration with national governments and the World Health Organisation (WHO) collecting up to date information, offering advice to the public and carrying out activities to help the vulnerable.

Red Cross activities in East Asia have been affected by the outbreak, with public events planned for Red Cross Day on 8 May in China and Mongolia, as well as a regional training workshop having to be cancelled. Eighth May celebrations in other countries are also likely to be scaled back.

China and Hong Kong have been hardest hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, with 115 deaths reported in each. As of 24 April, China had recorded 2,422 cases, most of them in Guangdong, but the highest number of new cases were in Beijing.

The Chinese government has taken measures to prevent the disease spreading further, such as reducing the May Day holiday from seven to five days and asking the population to travel only if necessary. In Beijing, all primary and high schools have been closed down for two weeks, while 4,000 people believed to have come into contact with SARS sufferers have been ordered to stay at home under quarantine.

Restrictions on travel are likely to affect Red Cross disaster management programmes, which is a great concern, with China’s flood season approaching – the country will be on high alert from June to August. Last year, floods affected 36 million people.

“Should the present restriction on travel within China be maintained, Red Cross personnel may not be able to travel to affected areas, and all aspects of disaster relief programmes may be affected,” ” says Richard Grove Hill, head of the Federation’s East Asia regional delegation. “It may be advisable to examine immediately, jointly with the National Society, how to prepare so that effective action might still be taken under such conditions.”

In Hong Kong, where the total number of cases has reached 1,458, the Hong Kong Red Cross has continued its prevention campaign, targeting particularly vulnerable people in the community such as the elderly. As part of this effort, tens of thousands of SARS prevention hygiene packs have been prepared and distributed by volunteers.

In Japan, which has two reported cases, 12 hospitals with special ventilation systems have been designated as first-category medical institutions for serious infectious diseases. One is the Red Cross hospital in Narita, near Tokyo International Airport, a possible entry point for new cases.

Some 18 medical staff at the Red Cross hospital are ready to cope with SARS and have been provided with specialized protective gear. Some 22 Red Cross hospitals in Japan are designated as second-category medical institutions for serious infectious diseases.

Although no cases have been reported so far in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the government is taking the issue seriously, screening passengers arriving in Pyongyang.

The Federation took part in a SARS workshop organised by the WHO in Pyongyang on April 17, aimed at raising awareness of the disease and promoting good practices among health workers. "One of the objectives of the Red Cross health and care programme in DPRK is to increase knowledge and strengthen capacity of hospitals and clinics," says Kaija-Lena Rajahuhta, the Federation’s health delegate in North Korea.

In Laos and Cambodia, the national Red Cross Societies are getting involved in health promotion activities linked to the SARS outbreak.

As a result the ongoing assessments of the global outbreak, the WHO recommended that only essential travel be made to Hong Kong, Guangdong, Beijing, Shanxi province and the Canadian city of Toronto.

The Canadian health authorities, however, felt it was still safe to travel to Toronto, since every case in the city could be linked back to the original index case and the disease had spread through person-to-person contact.

The Canadian Red Cross is continuing to support local health departments in tackling SARS, principally through the distribution of health kits and food parcels to thousands of people left isolated by voluntary quarantine in their homes.

Related links:

SARS information bulletin
WHO: latest SARS information
Canadian Red Cross: SARS response
Chinese Red Cross