SARS heightens fears but other dangers are greater

May 11, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

Your lifetime odds of dying after coming into contact with hot tap water are 1 in 69,745, according to the National Safety Council's 1999 odds of dying for the U.S. population.

Your chances of dying after coming into contact with a venomous spider are 1 in 592,829.

The odds that you will one day die while a passenger on a streetcar are 1 in 3.6 million.

It would be fair to say those odds would go up if you were visiting San Francisco.

The newest threat to public health safety is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. The disease has caused alarm in the United States as people have heard of deaths from SARS in China, Canada and other countries.

Yet, people in the United States had a greater chance of dying from being struck by lightning (1 in 55,578) or riding a bus (1 in 57,371) than they have of dying from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.


As of Friday, there was no death rate for SARS in the United States because no one in the country had died from the infectious disease that had claimed 506 lives worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

There were 63 probable cases of SARS in this nation as of Thursday, according to the WHO Web site.

"We have been able to contain SARS within the United States by implementing public health prevention measures," CDC spokeswoman Rhonda Smith said Thursday.

While SARS has caused concern, people take for granted that thousands of people in the states die each year from other ailments, such as the flu, Smith said.

In Washington County, residents are far more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, strokes, chronic lower respiratory diseases, diabetes and influenza or pneumonia, or from accidents, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel said he hadn't gotten any calls about SARS, though obviously people are concerned about the newly discovered disease.

"People are concerned and people should be concerned if it hits into this community," Christoffel said.

Then Washington County has to be prepared to respond, he said.

Psychological impact

There is tremendous psychological and economic impact on communities stricken with SARS, Christoffel said. That was evident in news photographs showing a virtually empty Hong Kong Airport, he said.

"It isolates the community," Christoffel said.

Still, other diseases and highway traffic conditions have a greater chance of affecting someone's mortality.

Christoffel said people think they are immune from being in an automobile accident even though they know that statistically it is more likely to happen than contracting SARS.

"With SARS, it's the unknown," Christoffel said.

"When you get something that's different and it has the ultimate consequence like SARS does - death - and there's no known way to protect yourself from it, then it becomes frightening.

"Just like terrorism, it's the unknown. How does one protect themself?" Christoffel said.

It wasn't long ago that people were concerned about West Nile virus. Christoffel fears people are becoming complacent about the disease that claimed seven lives in Maryland in 2002.

There are preventative steps people can take to avoid certain diseases, such as getting a flu shot to help prevent influenza, Christoffel said.

"The craziest act is someone picking up a cigarette and smoking it," Christoffel said.

Lung cancer and many other types of cancer have been tied to smoking, he said.

Regardless of the safety measures taken, getting a tattoo substantially increases the likelihood of contracting Hepatitis C, Christoffel said.

Since Christoffel became the county health officer in 2000 he has been trying to draw attention to an obesity problem and is frustrated his efforts have not gotten through to more people.

The risks of contracting other medical maladies, such as heart disease, a stroke or diabetes, could be reduced if obesity is reduced, he said.

People need to eat smaller portions and exercise more, Christoffel said. Just losing 10 pounds or 10 percent of their weight loss goal can potentially reduce a person's risk of diabetes and heart disease, he said. The benefits of starting to lose weight, even five pounds, are immediate.

People and the community as a whole need to accept that we are making poor choices about eating and exercise habits, he said.

When the stop-smoking campaign began in the 1960s, many people thought the participants were idiots, he said. In the past 40 years, the mortality rate has crept up for heart disease and lung cancer from smoking and now there are smoke-free workplaces, Christoffel said.

Christoffel said it will take time, too, for the message about the dangers of obesity to sink in for many people.

Deadly roads

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