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The number of victims from the SARS epidemic may have been greater if a Japanese doctor at the World Health Organization had not acted swiftly after receiving word about a new and deadly virus in southern China.

Hitoshi Oshitani, 44, is a regional adviser on infectious diseases at the WHO’s West Pacific Secretariat in Manila.

On Feb. 10, Oshitani received three e-mails simultaneously informing him of a strange outbreak in China’s Guangdong Province.

The first e-mail came from the son of a former WHO employee living in the province, the second from the French Consulate in the province and the third from a news outlet in Hong Kong. The doctor immediately asked the Chinese government whether the information was true.

The next day, Chinese provincial authorities made public that 305 people were infected with the unknown illness and five had died. Oshitani noted that 105 of the cases involved medical workers and thought that on-site investigations must be conducted immediately because the situation was so unusual.

On Feb. 23, he traveled to Beijing along with Keiji Fukuda, chief of the Influenza Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Atlanta.

But Chinese authorities refused to allow them to investigate, saying the disease was a problem in Guangdong Province and asked them to wait until provincial authorities provided information.

“If we had visited Guangdong Province at that time, we could have grasped the situation and dealt with the matter much earlier by sharing information with authorities in Hong Kong and Vietnam,” Oshitani said.

The largest obstacle was the closed nature of the Chinese government — which stood in sharp contrast to Vietnam’s actions.

With cooperation from the Vietnamese government, Oshitani instructed the WHO’s Hanoi office to gather blood and phlegm samples from suspected cases. This contributed to the early control of the disease in Vietnam.

But the situation was becoming more serious, and on March 12, the WHO issued its first worldwide warning that a dangerous pneumonia of unknown origin had broken out. Three days later it named the new disease severe acute respiratory syndrome.

On March 24, the WHO sent a group to China to ask the government to allow it to investigate; the Chinese government relented on April 2.

On June 12, the WHO’s West Pacific Secretariat announced that the outbreak appeared to be nearing an end.

At a meeting of SARS experts held in Kuala Lumpur last week, Oshitani reported on how the West Pacific Secretariat had dealt with the disease. He said that while SARS could emerge again this fall or after, what is important is transparency and information-sharing.

Oshitani, a Tokyo native, began studying infectious diseases in Zambia after graduating from Tohoku University in 1987. He was a lecturer at Niigata University until 1999, when he was seconded to the WHO for four years.

His WHO tenure has been extended for another year because of the SARS outbreak.

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