End the SARS hysteria now
Friday, May 09, 2003
America's top three newsmagazines featured virtually identical covers in their May 5th issues: a terrified person wearing a medical mask emblazoned with the letters "SARS." The April 29 New Zealand Herald headlined: "SARS Surge Could Stretch NZ Says Annette King." Total New Zealand cases: one. In the last month, The New York Times has run more than 300 pieces on the disease.
University of Toronto medical historian Edward Shorter calls SARS reaction: "A media-fanned wave of mass hysteria," and "mass psychosis." He's right.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of May 7, 6,903 cases of SARS have been reported since mid-November with 495 deaths. It also reports flu causes between "three and five million cases of severe illness and between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths" per year, with 36,000 in the United States. Thus flu internationally inflicts far more serious illness and death in a single day than SARS has caused in 20 weeks.
SARS is repeatedly called "killer pneumonia," as if pneumonia normally causes hiccups. Yet 62,000 Americans died of pneumonia in 2001. SARS stories often invoke the great flu pandemic of 1918-19, which probably killed 40 million people according to WHO estimates. That's more than 10 times as many people daily -- among a global population a third the size of today's -- as SARS has yet killed.
Even today, malaria and TB -- which like SARS are both essentially localized and yet global -- kill perhaps 15,000 people each day.
A far better name for SARS would be "The China Syndrome." About 90% of all cases are concentrated in China (including Hong Kong), up from 82% on April 1. Only about 15% of the world's nations have reported even one SARS case.
Why China? Hong Kong's medical care system has gone to pieces since the communists took over, and China's hygiene is as bad as its health care. The last time my wife and I went to Shanghai for a week we got our shots and avoided the water, yet as soon as we got back we had three serious illnesses between us.
Is Asia doomed? The April 26 Los Angeles Times reported that "SARS continued to spread across Asia," yet most Asian countries have no cases. WHO reports that continent's second-largest country, India, has one case and no deaths while Japan has no cases.
How contagious is the disease in countries with good hygiene and health care? On April 1, Europe had 21 SARS cases; on May 7 it had 36. Only one of these was transmitted locally, with the other patients infected in Asia. Indeed, of the 29 countries outside of China reporting SARS cases, merely four report local transmission.
Moreover, while the WHO has announced that aside from China the worldwide infection rate is decreasing, even Hong Kong had only eight new cases (of more than 1,600 total) on May 6.
How lethal is SARS generally and specifically in countries with good health care? The global death rate is about 6%, in the same league as other forms of pneumonia.
While the death rate is 7% in China, none of the 101 cases in Europe and the United States have been lethal. (For those without calculators, that's zero per cent.) Not that this stopped the May 1 Washington Post from reporting, "Surprisingly, the highest death rates appear to be occurring in the most advanced parts of the world." Surprising, indeed!
Yet much of the talk of economic gloom and doom may well be true, if only because perception prevails over reality.
The World Bank revised its East Asian growth downward by almost 10%, Asian stock markets have been slammed, and SARS publicity could cost Canada's economy up to $2.1-billion in lost growth this year, according to a major Canadian bank forecast.
This global hysteria has no upside. Fear can be a healthy reaction; panic cannot.
As Shorter told me, even as it appears that whatever there was of an epidemic is being contained, "What hasn't been contained is the mass psychosis surrounding it. It's entirely the working of the media; this need never have happened." In fairness though, public health officials have also contributed to the scare.
Roosevelt's assertion in 1933 "that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" was certainly an over-generalization; but it has never been more applicable than during the SARS hysteria. The doomsayers have had their fun; the panic must stop. Now.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.; Fumento@pobox.com.