We’ve finally taken a cue from the Canadians and passed a bill allowing us to quarantine SARS patients against their will, if necessary. Why wasn’t this done in China? Instead, SARS was kept secret by their government-controlled media. A Western journalist describes taking a plane for Guangzhou, the province where SARS originated, and noticing “that I was the only passenger wearing a protective face mask. My fellow travelers, all Chinese, aimed curious looks in my direction.” He overheard one man say to his girlfriend, “Why is that foreigner wearing a mask?”

While Western governments, as well as other Asian countries, are mobilizing their resources to try and prevent a SARS epidemic, the Chinese Government is enforcing a media blackout to the extent that most people in Beijing still don’t know about SARS. In the meantime, as the journalist says, “Flights like the one I was on were already spreading SARS all over the country.”

The Chinese government sees SARS as a security issue and thinks that telling the public they’re in danger might cause them to panic. They feel it’s much better to let a few people die in order to maintain “public stability.” China treats AIDS the same way?they don’t inform people about how serious it is, or tell them how to protect themselves against it.

The U.S. government decided it needs quarantine potential SARS patients after a woman arriving from China recently refused to see a doctor or go into isolation. She got on a train, but became so ill she was forced to seek treatment (and has now recovered). Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says, “We didn’t have any way to stop her.” When President Bush added SARS to the list of diseases for which health authorities can hold Americans against their will, it was the first time a new disease has been added to that list in 20 years. The others are cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever and several viral hemorrhagic fevers.

There has not been a large-scale quarantine in the United States since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. The last federal quarantine was in 1963, when one person was detained to prevent the spread of smallpox. “This authority would only be used if someone posed a threat to public health and refused to cooperate with a voluntary request,” Thompson says. “We’re working to be prepared for any eventuality.”

In China, people REALLY need to worry about what their doctors don’t tell them.

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