- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

The World Health Organization yesterday said the public should not be alarmed over reports the SARS virus can linger on plastic surfaces and in human excrement for days, saying this has not played a large role in transmission of the illness and that proper hygiene should protect against it.”Clearly, the major route of transmission is in close personal contact,” said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson. “Just swiping your hand across a surface … is not playing a major role in this outbreak.”He said the major mode of transmission of the pneumonialike illness — which scientists say is a new form of the corona virus — is droplets from an infected person coughing or sneezing.Mr. Thompson said the studies prove the virus responsible for the severe acute respiratory syndrome is “a little more hardy than other human corona viruses,” but that scientists don’t know if touching a surface would be enough to infect a person.He suggested additional hand-washing as a precautionary measure, but noted that most of the 3,000 people living with SARS are in hospitals, “so unless you wander into a SARS ward, you’re not at high risk.”But officials at the University of California at Berkeley announced yesterday they were taking the precaution of banning summer school students from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan — areas that have been hit hardest by the virus.The move, believed to be the first among major U.S. universities, affects more than 600 students who planned to attend the school beginning May 27. The ban does not apply to full-time students returning in the fall.Studies from WHO laboratories in Japan, Hong Kong and Germany found that the SARS virus, as the medical community had suspected, can survive on plastic surfaces for up to 48 hours. Tests are being conducted on other surfaces as well and will be available tomorrow. The virus can also survive at least two days in feces and at least 24 hours in urine, a WHO lab in Hong Kong found. And it can live up to four days in feces taken from patients.That has raised fears that surfaces contaminated with infected feces — such as doorknobs and countertops — could remain contaminated for days, infecting others if they touch it and then rub their eyes or mouth.But WHO officials said that, with two just exceptions, the majority of SARS cases have been spread by close person-to-person contact from coughing or sneezing. In one of those exceptions, scientists believe contamination with sewage may have played a role. In that case, some 320 SARS infections occurred among residents of a housing complex in Hong Kong.Still, doctors said it is significant that the virus can survive on surfaces and in waste.”The potential for transmission is a lot greater if the virus can survive for periods of time outside the body,” said Dr. Jim Meek, associate director of the Yale University Emerging Infections Program.”We need to keep examining to see how often these routes of transmission are important,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tenn.Both men said thorough hand-washing is the key way people can protect themselves from picking up SARS this way.”It’s even more important that people practice good hygiene, rather than wearing a mask to protect them,” said Dr. Meek, who said hand-washing should be “a good 15 seconds” instead of just a brief pass under the water.As of yesterday, SARS had infected 6,583 persons worldwide, killing 464 patients and appearing in 27 countries, the WHO reported. This is a jump of 364 new cases and 26 deaths since Saturday.

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