Forerunner, "WorldWatch," July 2003

While news of the SARS virus has been a regular feature of the mainstream media, a number of statistics have been overlooked, casting this "epidemic" in a new light and suggesting it is merely a reclassification of the flu and/or pneumonia.

» In Hong Kong, the "normal" annual number of hospitalized cases of pneumonia has ranged between 15,000 and 25,000. Lately, more than 3,000 people have died each year of serious pneumonia.

» The symptoms of serious flu/pneumonia include high fever, coughing, runny nose, headache, muscle ache or diarrhea, shortness of breath, and lung inflammation—not significantly different from SARS.

» Vivian Wong, Director of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority reports that the total number of deaths from Atypical Pneumonias of all causes in the period January-April 2003 was less than 5% higher than the number of deaths in the same period in 2002. This demonstrates that there is not an epidemic.

» According to the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO), 300,000 people died of flu worldwide last year. There were over 63,000 influenza and pneumonia deaths in the U.S. In the last flu season, more than 400 people died in Beijing in one month. There was no panic then. This year in 4 months (January to April), fewer than 200 died of severe flu in Beijing, and there was widespread panic.

» On May 6, 2003, WHO stated that the international mortality rate of SARS was 4% and 6% in Singapore. The published data of average mortality rate for influenza/pneumonia in the U.S. is 7.6%.

Why the media have focused so much on this syndrome is uncertain, but there are a number of well-documented effects of the hysteria. First, certain national and local economies have been crippled by the restrictions on trade and tourism. The "epidemic" has helped to undervalue Asian currencies, and the city of Toronto has already lost $190 million.

Second, the SARS scare has allowed governments to ratchet up their levels of control. President Bush has authorized airport immigration and customs agents to detain arriving passengers with flu-like symptoms. Similarly, the United Nations has dramatically increased the authority and influence of WHO to "fight international health threats." It can now intervene even when countries are not reporting a health crisis. Though WHO has no power to punish a noncompliant nation, the agency can use international pressure to gain cooperation. As has been demonstrated, its alerts and travel advisories can have a devastating economic impact.

Third, SARS has served to divert world attention from other controversial issues. Even though SARS was first classified in November 2002, it only became a highlight in March 2003, when a tremendous amount of attention focused on a relatively tiny number of fatalities.