Forget the impending war in Iraq, flying to Asia by air right now is believed to be risky because of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). This is a flu-type disease spread from China that may turn out to be as virulent as the Spanish Flu of 1919, which wiped out millions of people. As of yet there is no specific advice not to travel to Asia from the US or Europe, but the World Health Organisation has issued a rare "emergency travel advisory" for travellers from Taiwan to China. Other health expects are playing down the risks. Whatever, but pack your carbon-impregnated courier face-mask...

Is it safe to travel to the Taipei show?

The virus – if it a virus, scientists are not yet sure – appears to have originated in the Guangdong province of China.

Residents of Taiwan are being advised to stay away from this part of China. Aircraft believed to contain passengers with SARS could be quarantined. Passengers on a Frankfurt flight at the weekend were detained for nearly 24 hours until given the all-clear.

Epidemologists have yet to get a grasp on this illness and are taking no chances. In 1919, Spanish Flu infected 525 million people, killing 30 million of them by 1920, three times the death toll of the Great War that had just ended.

In 1968, Hong Kong flu killed 750 000 people around the world. If a mutated influenza virus is at work causing SARS – something that is disputed by British health experts – there’s no effective vaccine.

Surgical face-masks – or cycle courier masks with carbon filters – would look daft on any flight to Taiwan, but wouldn’t be out of place: many air passengers are now wearing them.

The World Health Organisation has been tracking SARS since mid-February. Cases have been reported in Vietnam, Hong Kong, Canada and China.

In Vietnam the outbreak began with a single initial case who was hospitalized for treatment of severe, acute respiratory syndrome of unknown origin. He felt unwell during his journey and fell ill shortly after arrival in Hanoi from Shanghai and Hong Kong. Following his admission to the hospital, approximately 20 hospital staff became sick with similar symptoms. He later died and so did a nurse treating him.

The signs and symptoms of the disease include initial flu-like illness (rapid onset of high fever followed by muscle aches, headache and sore throat). These are the most common symptoms. Early laboratory findings may include thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) and leucopenia (low white blood cell count). In some, but not all cases, this is followed by bilateral pneumonia, in some cases progressing to acute respiratory distress requiring assisted breathing on a respirator. Some patients are recovering but some patients remain critically ill.

Now WHO has issued an ’emergency travel advisory’:

15 March 2003 | GENEVA — During the past week, WHO has received reports of more than 150 new suspected cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), an atypical pneumonia for which cause has not yet been determined. Reports to date have been received from Canada, China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam. Early today, an ill passenger and companions who travelled from New York, United States, and who landed in Frankfurt, Germany were removed from their flight and taken to hospital isolation.

Due to the spread of SARS to several countries in a short period of time, the World Health Organization today has issued emergency guidance for travellers and airlines. “This syndrome, SARS, is now a worldwide health threat,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director General of the World Health Organization. “The world needs to work together to find its cause, cure the sick, and stop its spread.”

There is presently no recommendation for people to restrict travel to any destination. However in response to enquiries from governments, airlines, physicians and travellers, WHO is now offering guidance for travellers, airline crew and airlines. The exact nature of the infection is still under investigation and this guidance is based on the early information available to WHO.

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