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Latin America and the Caribbean have remained untouched by the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has so far claimed more than 300 lives worldwide, according to the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). But vigilance is high.

Although two suspected cases were identified in Brazil — both of whom were individuals who had recently visited high-risk areas in Asia — it has since been confirmed that both cases gave negative results for SARS.

According to Eduardo Costa, an epidemiologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the tropical climate in much of Latin America may help to prevent the spread of the infection in the region. "The fact that our climate does not keep people in closed environments might be a barrier for the disease," he says.

Nevertheless, the rapid spread of the disease around the world, and the arrival of travellers from affected areas, are being recognised as important threats by local health authorities. Scientists are concerned that the disease will arrive without being picked up by detection systems. "There is still little information on the disease, on the microorganism responsible for it and on the modes of transmission," says Costa.

In response to the threat, Brazil has tightened up its vigilance system, particularly in airports, where visitors are being given leaflets in English, Spanish and Portuguese about what to do if they experience SARS symptoms.

The Brazilian government has also created a nationwide network of 56 hospitals able to receive SARS patients. Brazilian medical professionals are working with the Central Public Health Laboratory, United Kingdom, to test samples from patients for the coronavirus that is believed to cause SARS.

In addition, scientists at São Paulo University are developing a molecular test for diagnosing the infection.

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