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Hospitals Prepare For SARS

Hospitals Prepare For SARSAs the mysterious disease begins to surface in the United States, Tufts experts say hospitals across the country are taking extra steps to protect their workers. Boston.

Boston [04.09.03] Little is known about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the mysterious disease which has swept through Asia and Canada infecting thousands and claiming over 100 lives. But what is known worries health care professionals: not only is SARS racking up a death toll, it is spreading to a disproportionate number of health care workers. That's why hospitals need to take extra precautions to protect their employees, say Tufts experts.

"The fact that health care workers can be infected relatively easily and then infect other people is very worrisome," Dr. Michael Worthington, Tufts associate professor of medicine, told The Boston Globe.

Worthington - who is the chief of infectious diseases at Tufts-affiliated St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston - says his hospital, like many across the country, is stepping up containment measures. If a patient comes to the emergency room with symptoms of SARS - which include fever, respiratory distress, and recent travel history to Southeast Asia or China - extra precautions are automatically taken.

"To be honest, we have to assume the worst now," Worthington told the Globe. "But I'm still hopeful that it won't be that bad in this country."

The new protection measures -- which include isolation rooms and masks for patients who may be infected - are already paying off. Last Saturday, doctors at Baystate Medical Center admitted a 15-month-old girl recently adopted from China who was exhibiting symptoms and took immediate precautions.

"At the time she hit the hospital, she was already in a mask," Dr. Richard Brown, Tufts professor of medicine and chief of the adult infectious disease division at Baystate, told the Globe.

The girl was then taken to an innovative isolation room in Baystate's pediatric ward, specially designed to prevent potentially infected air from circulating throughout he hospital. Doctors, nurses, and other workers treating the girl wore tight-fitting N95 masks, gowns, and eye protection. The health care workers also washed their hands with alcohol-based cleanser upon leaving the girl's room.

The caution appears to be paying off. The hospital - which has carefully monitored the health of its employees following the incident - reported that none of the workers contracted the illness.

But medical experts are by no means breathing easy. While hospitals are scrambling to treat and contain SARS, researchers are still trying to determine the cause of the mysterious ailment.

Scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the most likely cause is a viral bug called coronavirus. However, labs in Hong Kong and Germany recently said they suspect the disease is caused by a virus belonging to the paramyxovirus family, which includes measles and mumps.

Dr. John Coffin, a top infectious disease researcher at Tufts School of Medicine, said that he expects the debate to be resolved soon.

"I suspect the duel won't last long," Coffin told the Globe. "The data will sort itself out fairly quickly."

In the meantime, doctors at Tufts-New England Medical Center (Tufts-NEMC) - as well as other hospitals around the nation - are holding meetings and conferences to discuss how to improve their care and precautions until the cause is found.

"We would probably go overboard in being cautious," Dr. David Hamer, an assistant professor at Tufts and director of traveler's health services at Tufts-NEMC, told the Globe.

Hamer says that it is necessary for he and his colleagues to do everything they can to prevent the spread of the illness.

"It's very scary because there are these unknown factors, and it has spread rapidly within health-care institutions," the Tufts professor told the newspaper. "We need to be ready."

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