Swiss hospitals boost precautions over Sars

Infectious disease specialists say they are taking extraordinary steps to prevent any outbreak of the deadly Sars virus in Switzerland.

This content was published on April 9, 2003 minutes

Hospitals are using greater protection than normal because of uncertainties over how the disease is transmitted.

Fourteen suspected cases have been reported in the country so far, but seven of those have since been ruled out.

Only one of the remaining seven has yet been labelled a "probable" case of Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

The probable case concerned a 35-year-old man who was admitted to a Geneva hospital after returning from a trip to China. He has subsequently made a full recovery.

Extreme precautions

Dr Christian Ruef of Zurich's University Hospital says although the risk to the outside public is virtually non-existent, his team has gone to unusual lengths to minimise the risk of infection within the hospital itself.

"We're used to isolating patients for various conditions, such as tuberculosis or multi-resistant bacteria, but in dealing with the threat of Sars we have taken additional steps because we still don't know all the details about how it is transmitted or indeed the exact identity of the agent.

"All our staff are using masks of an even higher quality than normal and are also wearing eye protection because there has been some speculation that the virus might be spread through droplets that could get deposited on the surface of the eye.

Ruef added that the hospital is housing patients suspected to have Sars in rooms with pressurised ventilation to prevent air from leaking into surrounding rooms.

Nervous public

Hospitals and doctors also have to deal with an increasingly concerned public.

"There is certainly a fair amount of anxiety about Sars in Switzerland," says Ruef. "We're getting lots of calls from general doctors who are in turn getting lots of questions from their patients.

But although the public is showing awareness of the virus, the inundation of people believing they have the virus can be counterproductive.

"The fact that people are nervous doesn't make things any easier for us - in fact it means we have to be even more aware in the event that a real case pops up among all these other cases," Ruef said.

As the head of the Zurich hospital's infectious diseases unit, Ruef has already taken on two of Switzerland's suspected Sars cases, one of whom has already been discharged.

Keeping informed

As well as keeping in constant contact with the Federal Office for Public Health and with other Swiss hospitals involved in suspected Sars cases, Ruef says his team are keeping themselves updated with any international developments.

"This is the age of the Internet after all, and we're regularly checking the WHO site for new information as well as the English language sites of the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities.

Ruef says information on Sars is being exchanged at an unusually fast rate.

"For example, there's already been a detailed study in the New England Journal of Medicine just a few weeks after the first reported cases. Normally that would take months," he said.

No epidemic

By checking international developments and remaining alert on the home front, Ruef remains confident that Switzerland's handful of suspected Sars cases will not grow into something more worrying.

"We can quite clearly say to people in Switzerland who haven't travelled to high-risk areas that they are not in danger and that there is no epidemic here," Ruef said.

"And those cases that have been chalked up as "suspicious" have all been rapidly taken out of circulation, so to speak, so I don't think we will see a second wave of infection or any epidemic."

"Those who have travelled through the affected regions probably do have an increased risk of infection, but again this risk is not huge. All I would say to those people is that they should consult their private doctor if they do start to get a fever or a cough."

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

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