WASHINGTON - America's public health system, especially its frontline emergency rooms, is not ready for an outbreak of SARS or a similar infectious disease, a new government report and top trauma doctors say.
"Most hospitals lack adequate equipment, isolation facilities and staff to treat a large increase in the number of patients for an infectious diseases such as SARS," the U.S. General Accounting Office reported in testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
Emergency room doctors, meeting in Washington, told Knight Ridder Newspapers such an outbreak could collapse the fragile U.S. emergency room network.
"I liken the SARS problem right now to a 2-acre fire in a tinder-dry forest," said Dr. Arthur Kellerman, an Emory University School of Medicine professor and Atlanta emergency room doctor. "We don't have the capacity in any city in my mind to handle a real outbreak of the disease."
But federal health officials, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Julie Gerberding, said Wednesday the nation's hospitals could handle a sudden surge of patients. Moreover, billions of dollars are being poured into the public health system to fix the problems, she said.
"For about 30 years the public health infrastructure in this country was devastated by budget cuts," said Jerry Hauer, the assistant secretary for emergency preparedness at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "We've just started to rebuild that."
Severe acute respiratory syndrome is a flulike, sometimes fatal lung infection. SARS generally begins with a fever greater than 100.4 degrees. Other symptoms might include headache, discomfort and body aches. After two to seven days, SARS patients might develop a dry cough and have trouble breathing.WHO sends experts to Chinese province
BEIJING - World Health Organization experts are being sent to a crowded province in China where SARS is spreading quickly.
The WHO said it will deploy an investigative team today to Hebei, where the number of infections doubled to 98 in the past week.
At least 497 people around the world have died from SARS, with 11 deaths in Hong Kong, five in China and two in Taiwan reported Wednesday.
Also in China:
In northeastern Liaoning province, authorities revoked the licenses of two doctors, one for refusing to see patients with fevers and the other for refusing to attend meetings on SARS prevention. A doctor lost her job in the southwestern province of Sichuan when she refused to work with suspected SARS patients.
Premier Wen Jiabao warned that the rural health care system was ill-equipped to cope with the disease and called for better monitoring and education. "Problems with prevention work in farm villages cannot be permitted to be ignored," he said in the People's Daily newspaper.
In Beijing, four people have been charged with "causing public panic" by spreading SARS rumors on the Internet and through mobile phone messages, the official Xinhua News Agency said.Taiwan traces most of its cases to one patient
TAIPEI, Taiwan - Most of Taiwan's SARS cases can be traced to one hospitalized man whose lung ailment was misdiagnosed for five days, the head of Taiwan's Center for Disease Control said Wednesday.
That patient, a laundry worker, caused the explosive growth in Taiwan's cases that began on April 21 and forced the closing of Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital and three other hospitals, said Dr. Tzay-Jinn Chen, the center's director general.
Chen said he would fine the hospital about $10,000 for misdiagnosing the patient's disease for five days and for failing to report its error for two days longer.