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Fear of SARS

When a Baltimore physician passed through Cleveland on Easter Sunday with suspected symptoms of SARS, Cuyahoga County Health director Tim Horgan says his department was ready to respond.

Tim Horgan: It was a person being investigated to see if they did have SARS, so the job was then to determine who may have been exposed. People on the airplane, perhaps, for the overnight stay in the Greater Cleveland area where the person stayed, who might have been a close contact there.

Doctors in Baltimore quarantined the man, but no other related cases were uncovered. A second Ohio case of SARS contracted in Asia was confirmed after the patient had recovered. So far, doctors believe the only way to contract SARS is by traveling to an area with documented cases or by coming in close contact with a person suspected to be ill. But that hasn't stopped many Northeast Ohioans from reacting with fear to the new disease. While there's been no run on surgical face masks here, residents have been avoiding local Chinese restaurants and businesses. Cleveland State University professor of communications Carolyn Lin is a native of Taiwan. She says U.S. media have treated SARS coverage in much the same way they reported warnings about duct tape and plastic - and with much the same result.

Carolyn Lin: Media seems to be on this ride to snatch the story and just run with it. What media producers need to think about is take a step back and say, have we really prepared the stories in a comprehensive manner that we actually observe social responsibilities.

Lin says media can set public agenda by the frequency and prominence of its reporting.

Carolyn Lin: If a story is framed in a paranoid fashion, an epidemic, and it's going all over, and it could come to you and harm your family, then immediately the public fear will arise.

Lin believes that, while SARS is a serious threat, U.S. media have been irresponsible in their coverage by not putting the risk in perspective. Dr. Robert Salata is head of infectious diseases at University Hospitals. He agrees that reporting of SARS has been overblown. He points out that, while the disease has killed more than 500 people worldwide, most patients do recover.

Robert Salata: Would SARS ever reach the point where it will be placed in the same category as what we're seeing with respect to some of the other major infectious diseases around the world? I don't think so, because the one clue here is that the majority of people are surviving.

Salata says the reason doctors are concerned about SARS is that it's a new and relatively contagious disease. No one knows exactly just how it will behave and that makes decisions about treatment and isolation more difficult. But Salata says he and other local doctors are prepared to keep any potential cases from spreading into the general population.

Robert Salata: We have set forth protocols for isolation procedures in our institution in the event that such a case would come about.

Individuals can do their part in reducing the chance of infection. Cuyahoga County Health director Tim Horgan says it's simply a matter of staying away from infected areas and taking simple hygiene precautions.

Tim Horgan: Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze, get rid of a lot of habits that have a lot of hand/mouth, hand/eye contact.

Horgan says the county and four other local health departments are ready to deal with a local outbreak should a person sick with SARS slip past the health officials watching airports and border crossings.

Tim Horgan: I still would expect with the number of cases in Asia and the fact that the world isn't under quarantine, people will still move around, that we will end up with some SARS cases here in Cuyahoga County. But we're pretty keenly aware of that right now and we'll probably stay that way until the international cases fade away.

But he says being prepared should not mean being afraid.

Tim Horgan: There's always a reason with any kind of diseases for some concern. I couldn't be in the public health department if I didn't think there was always going to be some disease and there was always going to be some concern about it. But I don't think there should be any particular fear about it.

But if you still find yourself worrying every time you catch the latest news on SARS, Cleveland psychiatrist Nora Feeney has this advice:

Nora Feeney: I think if people are experiencing lots of anxiety, they need to cut back on the news coverage, because news is being reported so quickly there's often news that is incorrect, not because of lack of good research, but because the information is changing so quickly.

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have labeled SARS an epidemic. But local doctors and health officials say they think of SARS as a regional outbreak globalized through international travel that has only the potential of becoming a worldwide epidemic. To highlight the seriousness of the SARS threat, they point to the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1917, with its 2% death rate that killed more people than both World Wars combined. But they want the public to understand that so far in the United States, the risk of dying from SARS is essentially zero. They're confidant that with continued vigilance, prompt action, and good healthcare, that risk should remain low. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.