OSAKA – With the arrival of the Lunar New Year, Japan and other international destinations are bracing for an annual influx of tourists.
But as the deadly new coronavirus spreads from the site of its first detection in Wuhan, international concern is mounting that the world may face an epidemic similar to the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
SARS killed 774 of the 8,098 people worldwide who got infected, according to the World Health Organization. Below are details of the responses taken at the time, and the lessons learned that are being applied to the current outbreak:
What happened with SARS in 2003?
The existence of a new viral respiratory illness caused by what was labeled the SARS virus was first reported to the WHO in February 2003 by the Chinese government.
China said it had identified five deaths among 305 cases, mostly in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong. By the next month, the WHO had issued a global alert about a deadly unknown virus with respect to Hong Kong, and a travel advisory for Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and China.
Over the next few months, SARS cases would spread to 29 countries and regions, including the Philippines, Canada, Taiwan, India and the United States. Japan had several suspected SARS cases but no fatalities. The SARS virus appeared to have been contained by the summer of 2003.
How did Japan react to the outbreak?
The Japanese government ordered that visa applicants in China and Taiwan be interviewed and, if necessary, that the applicant present a doctor’s certificate stating they were not infected with SARS.
Quarantine systems at airports were strengthened, including random temperature checks on all passengers, regardless of their point of departure. Similar measures were put into place at ports where cruise and cargo ships from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan docked.
Japan also sent medical teams to Vietnam and China to help stem the spread of the virus. According to the Foreign Ministry, medicine and medical equipment worth ¥387.8 million had been provided to China, Mongolia and other Southeast Asian countries by June 2003.
What are some of the main differences between the way SARS was handled and the current outbreak?
Experts say a big difference between 2003 and today is the Chinese government’s attitude and rapid response.
China was slow to react to the danger 17 years ago and attempted to conceal it, even hiding cases from WHO inspectors. But the Chinese government subsequently upgraded its infectious disease facilities and reporting systems.
This time, the WHO has praised the Chinese response, with Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus telling media earlier this week that Beijing was quicker to identify the pathogen and share information about it, thus allowing South Korea, Japan, and Thailand to quickly diagnose their own cases.
For Japan, two major differences are that bilateral political and economic relations with China are deeper than they were in 2003, including a vast increase in the number of Chinese tourists here.
In 2003, according to figures from the Japan National Tourism Organization, there were about 449,000 visitors to Japan from mainland China.
That figure had increased to nearly 8.9 million in the first 11 months of last year, making a coordinated response and information sharing between the two countries particularly critical during a virus outbreak.