[NEW DELHI] In a major embarrassment to the Indian health ministry, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared India free of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), just days after Indian health authorities announced that nine cases had been confirmed in the country.
The WHO said last Thursday (1 May) that although 20 cases in India tested positive for the virus, only one fitted the WHO description of the disease. The virus in the remaining 19 cases was present only in small amounts, and was not virulent enough to cause SARS.
WHO officials said the diagnostic kits used by the Indian authorities and based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were not completely reliable. It has therefore advised all member countries not to rely on such tests alone, but also to use clinical symptoms to diagnose the disease.
Health Minister Sushma Swaraj admitted that India panicked unnecessarily in making its announcement. She said that India had wanted to keep the media updated and not hide anything. "We were cautious, over-cautious," she said. "We wanted to be transparent."
But this transparency only fuelled public fears. Families with suspected cases were shunned, many doctors did not report for duty at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Kolkata that had quarantined suspected SARS-positive cases, and some pilots of the national airline Air India refused to fly to SARS-affected countries.
Many continue to claim that Indian authorities have learnt little since the outbreak of pneumonic plague in 1994, when the government over-reported the number of cases leading to a US$7-billion loss to the economy.