''It's a bunch of bullshit
April 23, 2003 8:57 PM   Subscribe

''It's a bunch of bullshit," said Dr. Donald Low, one of Canada's leading infectious disease experts and a key member of the SARS containment team. ''It's inappropriate.'' The WHO added Toronto to the list of places to avoid due to the SARS breakout. This is certain to f'up T.O.'s economy if Ottawa can't get the WHO to retract the advisory. Are people blowing SARS out of proportion? Perphaps it is time to relax and look at things in perspective.
posted by birdherder (37 comments total)
People are beyond hysterical already. Apparently business has completely dried up at chinese restaurants in T.O. because the disease is so associated with China. Proving once again that people are dumb.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2003

As an honourary Canadian planning a return to Toronto again in May, this is disturbing since it will probably mean my company will cancel the project up there out of fear of this overhyped "epidemic".
posted by birdherder at 9:01 PM on April 23, 2003

I swear, when I saw the Toronto mayor complaining about this on ABC's World News Tonight, the first association that came to mind was the movie Jaws, where the mayor of Amity refuses to close the beaches just because someone thought they had a shark.
Mayor Vaughn: I'm only trying to say that Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars. Now, if the people can't swim here, they'll be glad to swim at the beaches of Cape Cod, the Hamptons, Long Island...
Brody: That doesn't mean we have to serve them up as a smorgasbord!
It may be completely illogical and unfair, but that's what I thought of.

Cue the whump-whump score, as John Williams called it...
posted by pmurray63 at 9:21 PM on April 23, 2003

i could give a rat's ass about tourism dollars, what i demand of the WHO is that they call my hysterical mother who lives in montreal and get her to stop calling me every blessed day to see if i'm sick or not...! i mean for god's sake, more people died of the flu this winter and the freaking overwhelming 99.99999999999999999999999999% majority of us have not been anywhere near the places where exposure took place. gah!

i'm going to chinatown every day now to buy my lunch just to spite the scared-silly and to give some support to the shops there. mmmm fresh char-siu-bao everyday... damn, i'm gonna end up shaped like one before this whole sars thing finally gets some perspective shoved up it's ass.
posted by t r a c y at 9:32 PM on April 23, 2003

it's blown out of proportion, in my opinion. pmurray63, i didn't see the mayor on the news and i can understand your connection of the interview with the scene in jaws but as someone who lives here, i think the media is making it look far far worse than it is. i work two blocks from a huge hospital (walk past it most days), and live in downtown (walking distance from chinatown). i've seen maybe 4 people with masks since this thing started (if you don't count ambulance drivers, all of whom are wearing them).
posted by dobbs at 9:39 PM on April 23, 2003

If Toronto had just followed Beijing's example and driven their SARS patients around town in ambulances while the WHO was there, they wouldn't be in this mess now.
posted by homunculus at 9:51 PM on April 23, 2003


We're all gonna diiiiiieee!
posted by Cyrano at 9:55 PM on April 23, 2003

People are beyond hysterical already. Apparently business has completely dried up at Chinese restaurants in T.O.

It's not just restaurants, small businesses, specialty chinese malls and any other community events have all pretty much felt the sars paranoia. Some small businesses have lost more than half of their regular customers, and a fairly popular Chinese flower show last week saw only an attendance rate of 50% compared to last year.

I still tell people this anecdote that actaully happened. A few weeks ago, guy gave up his spot in line (he was in the third place) for the bus and walked to the back after noticing I was oriental (the only one at the time) and was standing behind him.

There's a first hand account about one of the first SARS victim in Toronto. I encourage any one with a bit of time to read it.
posted by phyrewerx at 9:57 PM on April 23, 2003

I know that WHO is a UN organization, and not run by the US per se. But after the US warned France this week that it will "pay" for its war opposition, some part of me thinks that someone is pulling some WHO-warning strings to make Canada pay too...
posted by VulcanMike at 10:21 PM on April 23, 2003

"science chases money
and money chases its tail
and the best minds of my generation
can't make bail
but the bacteria are coming to take us down
that's my prediction
it's the answer to this culture
of the quick fix prescription"

yeah, the germs are going to kill us all eventually, but I kinda doubt it'll be SARS doing the killing...
posted by kaibutsu at 10:45 PM on April 23, 2003

I think SARS is being taken out of proportion.

Like, way too lightly.

Do people understand that despite the measures taken, the spread so far has been exponential? And that spreading into a few more previously unaware areas will inevitably lead to cases in ALL major population centers and the need to temporarily shut down travel between ALL of them?

The incubation period is too long and it looks just like common cold in the beginning. Until an effective drug is found, this should be taken seriously.
posted by azazello at 11:07 PM on April 23, 2003

"And the funeral home that cremated her brother told her husband not to come in, relenting only when it realized it could not otherwise receive payment."

Good link, phyrewerx.
posted by dglynn at 12:08 AM on April 24, 2003

Four percent of those infected die. Hardly the end of the world.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:18 AM on April 24, 2003

And most of those who die are over eighty, if I correctly recall. Which would probably do the states good, given the voting record of those damned geezers.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:53 AM on April 24, 2003

azazello, I basically agree with you, although it looks to me as if SARS is increasing geometrically, not exponentially. Take a look at this graph.

Canadian officials are reacting inappropriately. WHO is not known for hysteria. They are exercising appropriate caution.

stavros, although people bandy around a death rate of 3-4%, when you look at those patients who have gone through the entire natural history of the disease (i.e., recovered completely or died), the death rate is over 10%. A disease as easily transmitted as the common cold, with a death rate of 10%? This is something to take seriously.

It sounds like the Canadian officials are spreading misinformation. In birdherder's links, they keep saying that the disease is not spread by 'casual contact'. But the facts are otherwise. One person got it simply by being in an ER cubicle next door to a person with SARS. 29 people got it merely by being at the same prayer meeting with an infected person:
Last week, officials begin investigating a third cluster: 29 people who belong to a Roman Catholic sect called the BLD Covenant Community who attended a prayer group on March 28 and March 29. Two doctors who treated them were also infected. Officials asked 450 members of the group to go into quarantine.
Toronto is having trouble with people breaking quarantine. It sounds like the city is treading on the edge of the abyss. Maybe it won't fall in. Maybe.

When I read stuff like this Onion piece, I worry. It sounds like the hip, smart people have it all figured out. SARS is just hysteria and panic by people much stupider than they are, and it can be plugged into the usual pigeonholes: racial prejudice against Asians, groundless fears of terrorism, yadda, yadda, yadda, and don't forget the NASCAR joke. God, I hope SARS is contained successfully. It still may happen. If it does, you can all call me a hysterical idiot and beat me with a used N95 mask.

But the outcome might be much worse. It's just too early to tell. In The Onion piece, 'Lori Petruso' says, "More than 100 people have died worldwide from SARS! More than 100 people! 100!"

The piece is dated April 16. Now it's seven days later, and over 250 have died. At what point is The Onion going to decide enough people have died to stop making fun of concern over SARS?

no, the death rate from SARS is not doubling each week. the large bump last week was due, i think, to China admitting to a lot of deaths they hadn't admitted before. but still.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 12:56 AM on April 24, 2003

For those tired of hype and miselading commercial break teasers, I have found Metafilter's own Big White Guy in Hong Kong to be an excellent filter for getting important SARS news and relevant commentary.
posted by planetkyoto at 1:33 AM on April 24, 2003

The death rate has been higher than normal in Canada because the outbreak has for the most part been contained in hospitals, where it has infected a lot of already ill and elderly patients. And it's "petering out."
posted by transient at 5:37 AM on April 24, 2003

I think SARS is somewhat blown out of proportion by the media (a la snake fish and the funky ebola, wow, that sounds like a great band name!), but we must remember it is a deadly, infectious disease. Maybe instead of just getting angry and ranting about the WHO report, Toronto officials should use that energy in trying to completely contain the disease before it does spread more than it already has.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:17 AM on April 24, 2003

The WHO travel advisory is not intended to prevent people from catching the disease in Toronto - the odds are still very very low. It's about trying to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of us.

I have a close friend in Hong Kong, and so I've been reading the WHO bulletins every day and trying to avoid the media hype. The media focuses on daily death rates, but the real number to watch is the number of new cases. In HK deaths have been going up for the past two weeks, with younger and healthier people dying, but the number of new cases each day is trending down, indicating that maybe the epidemic there is coming under control (*crosses fingers*).

SARS is well on its way to killing more civilians than the war in Iraq, and the only chance we have to stop it is aggressively quarantining people and finding ways to reduce travel in and out of affected areas, since a cure or vaccine is probably months (if not years) away.

The stakes here are about whether SARS becomes a worldwide disease like TB or AIDS. Right now, SARS has the potential to kill millions in Africa and in other places with underdeveloped public health infrastructures.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the early days of AIDS can remember the denial, sluggish reponse of the authorities, refusal of the community to support quarantines and tracking of infection routes, and competitive withholding of information by research labs. A stronger response in the early days could have prevented more than 100 million deaths. Compared to that disaster, I'm encouraged by the way WHO has handled SARS.
posted by fuzz at 9:03 AM on April 24, 2003

"A stronger response in the early days could have prevented more than 100 million deaths. "

Wow, nice hyperbole you've got there.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:36 AM on April 24, 2003

Thank you, Slithy_Tove. I would love to dig up some primary-source material on what these kind of blase hipsters thought about AIDS in the 80's. "More likely to die of the flu" probably appeared somewhere. Although I wonder if this whole trend of deriding people who worry about these things as Middle American yahoos started after September 11th, around the time Dan Rather wouldn't get tested for anthrax and everyone (the right kind of people, anyway) praised him for being so smart and level-headed.
posted by transona5 at 11:53 AM on April 24, 2003

Four percent of those infected die. Hardly the end of the world.
Maybe not, but the 1918 flu pandemic killed somewhere between 30 and 40 million people, and had a mortality rate of a mere 2.5-3%. Can't say I'm thrilled with the prospects of something similar in an even more densely populated world.
posted by Doktor at 12:26 PM on April 24, 2003

AIDS IS far more difficult to acquire than the flu, silly! AIDS is an STD, in case you forgot, SARS is, well, not really known how its spread, probably airborne being a respiratory coronavirus and all. That means its already in a whole different category.

I think the whole trend of deriding media frenzy comes with the whole trend of media frenzy. The media gets everyone wound up into a lather and then rides the wave of hysteria in like a surfer. How many Newsweek covers are going to feature SARS, how many CNN graphics. How many will cover Lupus or the famine in Malawi, both of those will kill far more than SARS in 2003, however they aren't the issue due jour and thus don't deserve the cover story or headlines.

How many other murders occurred in the DC metro area while the sniper had us all ducking and covering? How many acts of gun violence occurred in New York in 2001? What happened in the war in Afghanistan (which is still claiming American lives) while the war in Iraq was going on? How many times has OJ Simpson had run ins with the police since his murder trial? Those stories get buried on page 4 and nobody pays attention, despite the importance of the issues raised. SARS, Laci Petersen, the dreaded Snake Fish, Ebola, Weapons of mass destruction, Afghanistan, Jon Benet Ramsey, OJ, Rodney King, and even AIDS to some extent, these stories and the ones like them are blown way beyond the proportions they deserve by a media who bankrolls its further expansion on our growing paranoia while at the same time issues of real importance often slip through the cracks. People tune in or read about Laci Petersen and they weep for her, but they couldn't give two shits for the 100 other women in California murdered by their husbands since Christmas. Sure SARS is very important, it needs containment. Sure Laci's story was tragic. Sure Rodney King had implications beyond he and the LAPD, but did they deserve the level of hype they get compared to other issues?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:43 PM on April 24, 2003

it's frustrating watching those who know better (the w.h.o, media outlets, etc) skip over the simple fact that every single death in toronto (16 people out of 5 million) has been directly related to the "index" case; the first person who was diagnosed. it's not out in the general community, it's not random in any way.

and i'll thank you very much not to associate my response to sars with those who ignored aids in the early 80's. i was there, my head was never in the sand, and most of my close friends died. this is not even remotely the same sort of situation, medically, administratively, societally, etc! i think i can safely say i will never know anyone personally who will contract and die of sars.
posted by t r a c y at 1:36 PM on April 24, 2003

Four percent of those infected die
Don't forget that the 4% is based on those affected so far, small numbers in high-tech countries, so everyone could be given the highest standard of medical care. It'd look rather diffferent in a Third World village, or with a pandemic in a First World city when hospitals start running low on ventilators.
posted by raygirvan at 1:38 PM on April 24, 2003

Did anyone else hear the soundtrack of Jaws playing in the background, when the mayor of Toronto was on TV decrying the WHO's decision?

"Close the beach...? There's absolutely no need!"
posted by Blue Stone at 3:27 PM on April 24, 2003

All of the information they have, except for the still in investigation case of the 29 prayer worshippers, show that SARS is most likely *not* airborne. Everything I've read on it says fluid transfer, or close personal contact. We don't know if the people praying were kissing or whatever. Until I see some real facts of it being airborne, I'm not going to run screaming yet.

I do agree that a lot of people are blowing it out of control. But that's kind of what happens with everything these days, isn't it? I just wish people would get *informed* on the damn thing instead of just blindly freaking out about it and creating/circulating stories about it.


At what point is The Onion going to decide enough people have died to stop making fun of concern over SARS?

The Onion makes fun of *everything*. That's what it does. They aren't going to issue a sincere apology for "making this whole SARS thing seem to be a lot less than it is" and then go back to bashing every other major and minor issue in existance.

That's why I love them. :)
posted by christian at 4:55 PM on April 24, 2003

Did anyone else hear the soundtrack of Jaws playing in the background, when the mayor of Toronto was on TV decrying the WHO's decision?

"Close the beach...? There's absolutely no need!"

Blue Stone: As a matter of fact, I did. :)
posted by pmurray63 at 5:02 PM on April 24, 2003

Another perspective on the public health response to AIDS vs SARS, from someone who was there:
The most chilling moment of my medical career occurred in 1985, when I led a program to test incoming U.S. Army recruits for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. At the time, little was known about the emerging HIV virus or AIDS. As I began to analyze blood samples from the first 600,000 recruits, I discovered that HIV had silently infected a large cross section of apparently healthy young adults. At that moment I realized that we were already losing the race to control the virus, and that the human species was destined to be afflicted with HIV as a fact of life -- and death -- for decades to come.

Now, the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) threatens to cause another global pandemic. But this time the chances of successfully controlling the emerging microbial threat are far better -- and there is a real possibility that we can eradicate the virus before it overwhelms global control efforts.
-- Dr. Donald S. Burke, a professor of international health and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

This is from an op-ed originally in the WSJ, but saved here.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 11:45 PM on April 24, 2003

The Globe is reporting today that there have been no new cases in the community for 19 days (that's almost 2 incubation periods), and no cases of transmission in a hospital setting for a week. Your chances of catching it in Toronto are just about zero.
posted by transient at 5:27 AM on April 25, 2003

yet people are becoming more and more hysterical, especially americans... turning away canadian travellers at the border, turning away canadian girl's soccer teams from pre-planned tourneys, religious gatherings turning their backs on canadian pilgrims, telling them to go home. the washington post refusing to meet with canadian reporters... it goes on and stupidly on. but then there's the really serious economic stuff, such as 10's of 1000's of cancellations at hotels, conferences, etc, etc. the WHO has totally fucked us over and even admitted this morning that they based their advisory on old, irrelevant information, yet they stand by it. unbelievable.

so right now i'm starting a movement within my social and work circles to cancel all vacations and other purchases that we were going to make in the usa and other countries, and then spend our considerable disposable incomes at home instead. if people are going to shun us, then we should shun 'em right back.
posted by t r a c y at 7:47 AM on April 25, 2003

A drug is on the way. Isolate, sequence, manufacture and test a cure, all in a couple of months. This seems miraculous.

“A good analogy is a zipper,” Dr Burger said. “The RNA virus is like one half of the zipper, and if you can create another half that fits together with it perfectly, you can neutralise it.”

In the meantime, stay away from Shanghai where they are still telling porkies.
posted by grahamwell at 10:34 AM on April 25, 2003

Letters to the Editor from the Hot Zone.

Meanwhile, down here in Pennsylvania, the Department of Health just announced that we have a fifth case of SARS in the state. Where had the patient acquired the disease?

posted by Slithy_Tove at 11:45 AM on April 25, 2003

Tracy, please remember the WHO is a UN organization, are you going to shun the world? One thing you might have picked up though from MeFi is that the American media and government is hardly the American people, shun away if you will, but the only way for two countries to come together is to learn to understand eachother better not to shut down talks. Prime example: North Korea and the US.

Don't forget that the 4% is based on those affected so far, small numbers in high-tech countries

High tech? Since when have rural China or the Philippines been described as high tech?

Where had the patient acquired the disease?


Same goes for Baltimore's new case and the three in Northern Virginia. All 4 had recently returned from Toronto. Containment rather than complaints, please. Thanks.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:39 PM on April 25, 2003

Ah, Slithy Tove, any links to that Pennsylvania Dept. of Health report?

I'd like to know more about that Toronto visitor. Where was he, whom was he in contact with, etc., because

I live in Toronto, downtown, a few blocks north of the Royal Ontario Museum. Am I concerned? Nope.

I still go out and play hockey 4 times a week, may I add, one of the teams I play for are comprised of 95% Asians. Sure, we asked each other if any had been to China recently, have they been in contact with anyone that was recently there [Shanxi Province or Beijing] and were they in contact with any health care workers. Nope on all counts. No one played with any N95 mask filters on! Yah, here in MaskFilter.com

Madness eh?

Oh, after the game, we all line up, many of us take our gloves off and shake hands.

Miss Manners suggests you wash your hands before eating and generally practice hygiene. Don't go picking your nose after that handshake or after handling money. If you must, at least wash your hands, ok?

This has more to do with those working in health care. Specifically dangerous is intubating a suspected patient. Seems coughing and sneezing one may get infected.

The WHO has truly done a disservice to my city. More than our fucking idiot Mayor has done in his term in office!

From their palace in Geneva they sounded the economic death knell for my city without getting the facts here, without visiting and that pisses me off.

My sister's hockey team [from St.Louis] was supposed to come to a hockey camp here and play hockey with some of my teams. It would have been nice to see her again. Thanks to WHO, her team cancelled. Loss of business for the hockey school, hotels, retaurants and night clubs etc, etc.

All for what? In a city with 3 million people, under 100 may have contacted this disease. Yes it spreads fast, but the city board of health official [Councillor Joe Milhevec, chair] and Toronto's medical officer of health [Dr. Sheela Basrur] pinpointed where it spread from [Grace Hospital in Scarborough] and continually informed those in the city by media if any new cases cropped up, where they were and all those people in contact with those people were targeted and asked to quarantine themselves and monitor their temperature and health for 10 days.

Over the Easter holidays, the old folks home released my 100 year old grandmother to go to dinner at friends' and families [two days in a row]. Initially, they were locked down, no visitors. That was hard, because you explain why you haven't visited your grandmother all week, when she's used to visitors every second or third day. She's not that out of it yet! She enjoys hanging out with us as much as we enjoy hanging with her.

Would we put her life in danger if we thought there was a serious probability of her contacting SARS? Not on your life. She's not ready for the other world yet.

So fuck Geneva, Switzerland and WHO, I won't be doing any trading with that country or visiting it either. Sorry, that's where the headquarters are located, so... I'll be just as illogical. Before you spread fear, which spreads faster than SARS itself, get your damn facts straight and think of what you are doing and the possible repercussions.

My next question is why did they start spreading this fear, when they clearly were not in touch with Toronto's medical officer of health or the city board of health official.

I say that is criminally irresponsible! The damn city should sue for the millions it will cost us in lost business. Although Toronto was targeted, it will no doubt affect the whole country, because who gives a rats ass whether it's Vancouver or Toronto, it's all the same place to those unfamiliar with the geography, even though they are thousands of miles apart.

From the WHO press release [thanks for that link BTW]:

Information from the Chinese government [that's an oxymoron!]... evidence that travellers are becoming infected while in one area and then subsequently exporting the disease elsewhere. All the cases reported have identified links to known SARS cases. Using the same criteria, WHO has assessed the SARS situation in Toronto, Canada.

As it started in China, shouldn't the WHO be concerned about its origins? They know how it is spread, witness Torontonians who visited China, but why does it begin??? How did it start? Hygiene? Overcrowding?? Communism????

Instead they fuck play with a country's economy in their haste.

I'll be going out clubbing tomorrow night and catching some live music [EastMountainSouth], drinking some pints and looking for kisses and hugs [of course I'll ask the appropriate questions, if she's been to China etc..]. The Documentary Festival, hot docs is starting tonight and I'll be damned if I miss any of these gems.

As someone who lives in Toronto, no one is dropping dead yet here ala the plague yet, life moves on.

*ok, I'll step away from the counter now, I need a beer!*
posted by alicesshoe at 2:43 PM on April 25, 2003


...how dramatic.

and your pennsylvania case is said to be directly linked to the index case. does no one understand what being directly linked to the index case means...? a handful of nitwits writing letters to online editors is indicative of nothing. the streets of toronto are just as busy as they usually are. save for said nitwits we're not wearing masks, holding our breath, running around like chicken little, or huddling in our homes. yet somehow 4,999,984 of us don't have sars.

please remember the WHO is a UN organization

depending on how you look at things that may or may not be to their credit. more than anything their association with eachother raises the question of whether all this has just been politics. have you not heard the rumblings from american cdc staff and others that the who's advisory on toronto was meant solely to take the heat off of poor put upon china...?

are you going to shun the world?

as i stated earlier, yes. i've cancelled all my vacation plans which included england, boston, nyc, tickets to see mame, plus all the cross border shopping i was going to do in the states this summer. we're only talking aprox $15,000 but i'm not the only one who's going to be or has already done the same. our disposable income needs to stay home to make up for this hysteria. toronto, vancouver, and the laurentians will get my tourist dollar this year instead.

other than that i give up. clearly people have no desire to understand/admit what being directly linked to the index case means - as all those who were infected in toronto happen to be - so there's no point in addressing this further.
posted by t r a c y at 3:40 PM on April 25, 2003

Toronto may have indeed turned the corner. If so, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. But remember, it was only ten days ago when Toronto infectious disease specialists were terrified that SARS was about to break out into the general population.

If this is indeed the turning point, then Toronto will get back to normal. But don't expect too much too soon.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 11:58 PM on April 25, 2003

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