Current Affairs

Current Affairs




Health ministry prepares firewall against SARS
BY CHARMAINE CLARKE Assistant news editor
Sunday, April 06, 2003



The Mandeville Hospital in Manchester houses another of the quarantine units.

JAMAICA is feverishly fine-tuning plans to intercept and control the entry of the latest health scare, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a pneumonia-like virus which has already killed more than 80 people and infected thousands more overseas.

Yeates. plan involves treating the symptoms and focus on preventing the spread of the infection

In common with health authorities across the globe, the local health ministry has drafted a contingency plan which will operate out of three regional centres covering the entire island.

WINT. we are giving health alert cards to all the airlines

The Cornwall Regional Hospital in Montego Bay, the St Ann's Bay Hospital and the Mandeville Hospital have been identified as the locations for the island's three regional isolation units. And the National Chest Hospital in Kingston has been pegged as the facility that will be used if, once the disease is discovered in the island, the number of cases begins to grow.

"That's what we are putting in place in terms of hospitalisation," said chief medical officer in the Ministry of Health, Dr Barrington Wint, in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

He stressed, however, that based on worldwide trends, most cases of the viral illness were mild, did not require hospitalisation and could be dealt with by putting those infected in quarantine.

Mild cases of infection would require isolation, in the patients' homes, for 10 to 12 days.

Early last week, after the World Health Organisation issued a travel advisory for several high-risk areas, the health ministry told the nation that persons who travelled to those areas would be quarantined after they returned to the island.

The high-risk areas include Hong Kong, Guangdong Province in China, Singapore, Hanoi, Vietnam and Toronto, Canada.

Currently, all passengers entering the island on direct or connecting flights from these areas are provided with health alert cards that describe the symptoms of the illness, and advise them to report to their doctors or the health ministry if they believe they may have contracted SARS.

To date, Dr Wint said, no one has been placed in quarantine or placed under surveillance.

"We are not quarantining you until we think you are a suspect case," he said. "We would first put you under surveillance but there is nobody yet who we have identified who needs surveillance.

"In the meantime, we are giving health alert cards to all the airlines, we are working between immigration and our nurse at the airport to identify those people and ensure that they get it," he added.

On Friday, the Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH), which will provide the isolation unit for the western end of the island, put the finishing touches to its contingency plans.

The CRH's infection control team met and out of the meeting a firm plan was agreed on how to cope with any cases of SARS sent to the facility.

"We have a plan on how to approach any suspected or confirmed cases," said acting senior medical officer, Dr Curtis Yeates. "The plan involves who is to look after the person, where to look after the person, the protective garments and gowns we should wear and the treatment protocol and how long the person is to stay in hospital."

With SARS still a puzzle with no known cure, local health officials can only rely on the experiences of their counterparts in other parts of the world.

According to Dr Yeates, if confronted with a case they will concentrate on treating the symptoms, and focus on preventing the spread of the infection. That includes earmarking a section of the hospital to be used as the isolation area.

"We have identified an isolation area, we just came from viewing the area and we are actually preparing it," he told the Sunday Observer. "I won't say which ward because I don't want people to label any place."

He added that all the relevant departments had been briefed on their role and the hospital was ready, even though they hoped they would not see any cases of the deadly disease.

At St Ann's Bay, where health authorities have had previous experience in quarantining patients with contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, preparations were also well under way, though not as far advanced as in St James.

"I wouldn't say we have had an isolation room made overnight, but we have areas in our facility which could be used by single patients," explained CEO for the 200-bed hospital, Lynden Buchanan.

Only about 80 per cent of the beds are used at any one time, so there are extra rooms that can be used to isolate SARS patients.

All the departments have been alerted, Buchanan said, adding that the facility was ready to handle a case of the Atypical pneumonia virus.

"If the warning comes that there is a case reported in the island, we would have to take steps to go further," he said. "We would physically delineate the area that was designated and the medical team would take the steps and do whatever can be done. Of course, we would have the recording of information to feed back to the ministry and the World Health Organisation."

In the meantime, the health ministry is to kick off a SARS public education campaign by this Tuesday, Dr Wint said.