"The hospitals have been closed and people are dying." A brief but chilling dispatch from the city of Guangzhou provided one of the outside world's first hints of the chaos in southern China's Guangdong Province as the mysterious disease now known as SARS spread unchecked. "When I got [the message], the province was already in disarray, with wholesale demonstrations in the streets," says retired U.S. Navy infectious disease investigator Stephen Cunnion, of his friend's report that he posted to ProMED-mail, an international infectious disease listserv.
Chinese officials have issued an extraordinary apology, effectively admitting that months of secrecy and denial after the new illness appeared last November created a case study in how not to handle an infectious disease outbreak. But in the end, China might have done the world a favor of sorts by providing a test of global readiness for an even more devastating future epidemic, whether naturally occurring or unleashed in an act of terrorism. With SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) having hit 22 countries by mid-April, world preparedness looks decidedly mixed.
This article was originally published with the title Caught Off Guard.