SARS - A Global Threat, A Global Response

EU Council of Health Minister's Meeting

Brussels, Belgium
7 May 2003

SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, has only been with us for a few months but, in that time, it has evolved from an unknown problem in one city in southern China, to an infamous global health threat. It is the first new public health epidemic of the 21st century and our first opportunity to mount a coordinated, early, public health response.

From the moment we sent out the global health alert, on 12 March this year, the response has been rapid and effective. From a scientific point of view, we have learned about SARS in record time. Collaborating centres, including in Paris, in Hamburg, in Rotterdam and London as well as in North America and Asia, have been instrumental in helping us learn more about this disease. By working together, sharing information and communicating the latest findings, we have made unprecedented progress in learning about this virus.

We know it is caused by a new type of coronavirus – a virus family usually associated with the common cold. We know SARS generally spreads through droplets, during close contact with an affected person. And we also know now that it can live on surfaces and in stool. This makes fighting it more challenging, but this expanding knowledge gives us more tools to mount a strong public health response.

We know also that, so far, SARS has been spread to just a limited number of areas and countries. We have seen the epidemic contained and stopped in Vietnam. And we have likely seen it peak in Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto, but not before appearing in some 27 countries, including many here in this region. And, of course, we know that SARS is still spreading through China. Cases are increasing in Taiwan. The global fight against SARS is far from over, but our early action has made a difference.

Rapid action in this region has definitely made a difference. Soon after our global alert was issued, Germany saw the very first case in Europe, when a doctor infected with SARS landed in Frankfurt and was quickly put into isolation. Rapid response there ensured no further spread. The same can be said of many European countries, where individual travellers with SARS have been quickly identified and isolated. The result – no community transmission in this region. Continued sensitive surveillance is necessary to ensure rapid case detection and infection control. In future, a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control could help further coordinate a rapid response to these types of emerging threats. However, the fight against SARS is far from over. We don’t yet have a treatment, we don’t yet have a vaccine. But we do have a window of opportunity now to contain it – to avoid it becoming endemic in any country. To do this, we will be stretched. We will be tested. But we must try. By doing that, we are giving new meaning to the protection of global public health.

We have already seen the immediate health and economic consequences of SARS. We have seen how this virus can paralyse the health care system – with doctors and nurses themselves sick – unable to care for those with SARS, or, with other ailments. We cannot afford to have these consequences affect even more countries of the world, particularly in countries with weaker health infrastructures already stretched by a disproportionate burden of disease. These countries could soon face crippled hospitals, the loss of valuable professional staff and the fear and panic which come from a new disease. SARS will not be the last new disease we see in our lifetimes. But our response now is a test for the future. We see the importance of full transparency, as we are reminded again that one country’s disease is potentially the world’s problem. Openness now will save lives, and will maintain faith in economies in the long term. And while the system now is good, we know that to mount the most effective offence to new diseases, we need to expand the capacity for global surveillance and response. This is an issue that we will report on and that will certainly be the focus of delegations as we meet at the WHA some two weeks from now.

I know you will continue your good work on SARS. Your work to protect your own populations from SARS will also protect others. This is global public health at its very best.