Sensational media coverage of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome,
which has killed 326 people worldwide, has fanned the flames,
said David Baltimore, who won the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine
for his work on how viruses cause disease.
"I think there has been overreaction," Baltimore, a leading
AIDS researcher who is now president of the California Institute
of Technology, said in a telephone interview.
"I have to agree with that," added Dr. David Ho, another top
AIDS expert who heads the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in
"Obviously, the fear comes from the fact that this is a novel
disease. Many aspects of this epidemic are still mysterious. Fear
of SARS is outrunning SARS per se," Ho added.
Ho and Baltimore ought to know. AIDS kills virtually everyone
it infects without treatment and 20 years into the AIDS epidemic
there is no cure and no vaccine.
In contrast, 94 percent of SARS patients recover.
Baltimore said World Health Organization (news
sites) moves have been appropriate, such as the controversial
recommendation against travel to Toronto, where 21 people have
died from SARS.
But boycotts of Chinese-owned businesses and scenes of people
walking the streets of Hong Kong wearing surgical masks show that
the general public does not understand the real dangers, Baltimore
"As much as overreaction, there has been a lack of balance,
of putting it into perspective, because it is a real problem,
no question," Baltimore said.
"But people clearly have reacted to it with a level of fear
that is incommensurate with the size of the problem and I think
it is getting in the way of a reasonable response."
The government in China, where SARS appears to have originated
late last year, has been criticized for covering up the initial
outbreak -- but officials there have said they feared creating
the sort of panic that has been seen.
"The Chinese government was totally irresponsible in covering
it up," Baltimore said. "We can't get away from that. It is a
demonstration of the value of openness."
WHO has praised Vietnam for its response -- which was to immediately
call for international help in handling its own outbreak of SARS.
WHO has declared Vietnam to be free of SARS.
"This thing literally never would have happened on anything
like the scale it happened if the Chinese had been open about
it from the beginning," Baltimore said.
SARS, caused by a relative of one of the common cold viruses,
has infected an estimated 5,300 people in nearly 30 countries.
It has a mortality rate of about 6 percent, which is higher than
comparable respiratory diseases such as influenza.
But while SARS is new and frightening, its impact, so far, has
been minor. In a mild year, influenza and its complications kill
an estimated 250,000 people around the world. Malaria kills at
least a million, mostly children.
Yet earlier this month two Chinese runners were asked to pull
out of a marathon in the Netherlands because of SARS fears. Many
cities have reported people are avoiding Chinatown districts --
including New York, where no SARS cases have been confirmed.
"What happened to Hong Kong, for example, with the hotel occupancy
rate at 2 percent, is an overreaction," Ho said.
Much can be blamed on media coverage, Baltimore said. "What
we are seeing is a playing up of the things that make people worry,"
But, he added, perhaps scary reports are just giving readers
and viewers what they want.
"In some sense people like to be frightened," he said. "And
so, to some extent what I am saying is a denial of what seems
to be a basic human instinct -- to get a sort of frisson (shiver)
of excitement out of danger. And the press is playing into that."