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SARS awareness welcome but common sense needed

SARS awareness welcome but common sense needed

HEIGHTENED awareness of the threat posed by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, linked to the return of New Zealand Sevens supporters who travelled to Hong Kong, seems to have triggered a rash of rumours and speculation the Ministry of Health said today.

"We have had a lot of calls from concerned New Zealanders today, as have talkback radio hosts, doctors and many other individuals and agencies," Ministry spokesman Dr Colin Tukuitonga said.

"I want to be quite clear: New Zealand is acting in anticipation of a serious health threat but we do not yet have one case of SARS and we don't want to over-react.

"We welcome public awareness of SARS. What we really want is well-informed awareness, and for common sense to prevail."

Dr Tukuitonga said New Zealanders returning from Hong Kong were probably less at risk, and hence less of a risk to others, than thousands of other travellers arriving from Hong Kong.

"We have taken a number of steps to reduce the risk to New Zealanders. We have provided all airlines flying into New Zealand with information for their staff, and information on SARS for redistribution to passengers; we have reminded flight crew of their obligations under international health conventions to which New Zealand is a signatory to radio ahead and advise if they are carrying seriously unwell passengers, we have provided SARS alert posters for entry halls at international airports and we have paramedics and public health personnel on standby.

"What we are NOT doing, contrary to some people's assumptions, is actively "screening" passengers. This is simply not do-able - what would we screen for? There is no test for SARS."

Dr Tukuitonga said it was important to remember that the cause of SARS was not yet known.

"What we do know is that most cases of infection are in health professionals or family members in close contact - handling bodily secretions - with someone with SARS."

Dr Tukuitonga said the MInistry of Health was confident health professionals in New Zealand would take the appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of SARS.

"That said we know suppliers of masks have run out of stock. However we know most District Health Boards have a supply, and that more are due to arrive in the country next week. We do not see this as a major problem."

Dr Tukuitonga confirmed the Ministry of Health SARS team was discussing advice to incoming tours from the worst-affected countries with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials.

Yesterday the Ministry advised New Zealanders considering going to the worst-affected countries - mainland China including the special administrative region of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Hanio, Vietnam - to postpone all non-essential travel.

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