• Vol. 35 No. 5, 374–378
  • 15 May 2006

SARS Plague: Duty of Care or Medical Heroism?



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Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a new infectious disease that emerged in mid-November 2002 in Guangdong, southern China. The global pandemic began in late February 2003 in Hong Kong. By the time SARS was declared contained on 5 July 2003 by the World Health Organization (WHO), it had afflicted 8096 patients in 29 countries. No other disease had had such a phenomenal impact on healthcare workers (HCWs), who formed about 21% of SARS patients. In Vietnam, Canada and Singapore, HCWs accounted for 57%, 43% and 41% of SAR patients, respectively. At the beginning of the outbreak, there was practically no information on this disease, which did not even have a name until 16 March 2003, except that it was infectious and could result in potentially fatal respiratory failure. Indeed, HCWs had lost their lives to SARS. Understandably, some HCWs refused to look after SARS patients or even resigned. Initially, much negative publicity was given to such HCWs. It was a very trying time for HCWs as many were also ostracised by the society which they served. They were perceived to be a potential source of infection in the community because of their contact with SARS patients, whom they risked their lives looking after. Subsequently, as we learnt more about the disease and educated the public about the plight of the frontline HCWs, the public gave the frontline HCWs tremendous support and even honoured them as heroes. Being in the medical profession, caring for patients is one of our expected responsibilities. On the other hand, as public citizens, HCWs have the right to resign when they feel that their responsibility to their families should take priority over that to their patients. As a result of this scourge, each HCW learnt to decide if caring for patients is their chosen profession and vocation. Many chose to live up the Hippocratic oath.

SARS has been described as a Chinese plague because it emerged from the colourful markets of wild animals and the exotic kitchens of Guangdong, southern China in mid-November 2002. In late February 2003, the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong became the epicentre where SARS crossed intercontinental boundaries through rapid air travel, affecting mainly Asian countries.

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