Teachers.Net Chatroom Exchange Reveals SARS Outbreak
by Catherine Strommen
One-on-one contact with people from all over the world is what I truly love about our Teachers.Net Teachers' chatroom. Sometimes we cry out for help with a challenging student; other times we share a great project, and much of the time we just relax, joke and enjoy each other's company. The problems and the joys of teaching seem the same the world over. From time to time, we share news about local disasters and crises, getting an immediate account from people who are actually living it, sometimes even before it is reported on the television news or in newspapers.
While we are enjoying all this personal contact in the chatroom, we may not realize that we are also affecting world events. Teachers know that every word or action has an effect on a student, but rarely do we get to experience first-hand how true and wide-ranging the effects of touching a single life can be. This winter, the importance of the individual became clear to me when Teachers.Net and I, by chance, became high-tech links in the chain of people and events that cracked the Chinese government's tight lid on its emerging SARS epidemic.
One evening early in February 2003 I was chatting in a rather empty Teachers.Net chatroom. A chatter from China with whom I had chatted a couple of times before logged on. He asked, "Have you heard of the terrible sickness in my city?" Obviously terrified, he described an illness that started like a cold, but killed its victims in days, and he seemed to agonize over whether or not to flee the province. His friend, a hospital worker, and her mother had died. The hospitals in his city, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province were closed, the chatter complained, but his government was lying about the seriousness of the situation and hiding the truth. He was clearly in a panic, didn't know what to do, and was seeking information.
"Contagious disease" and "Asia" immediately reminded me of an old friend who might be able to help. Dr. Stephen O. Cunnion had been a neighbor in Hawaii when both our Navy families were stationed there, and we kept in touch. He was, among other things, an epidemiologist with an interest in Asia and now serves as the president of International Consultants in Health Inc, of Silver Springs, Maryland. I told my chat friend that I had not heard anything, but that I might be able to find something out. Late that night, February 9, I emailed Dr. Cunnion, "Have you heard of an epidemic in Guangzhou? An acquaintance of mine from a teacher's chatroom lives there and reports that hospitals are closed and people are dying."
Dr. Cunnion emailed back the next day, and I could tell he was quite interested because he ignored all the family news and went straight to the disease. He wrote that he had posted "Does anyone know anything about this problem?" with a portion of my message on the ProMED web site http://www.fas.org/promed which monitors emerging diseases and is used by infectious disease specialists around the world. This prompted other ProMED users to report rumors they had heard. As a result, on the following day, the World Health Organization initiated a formal inquiry into the outbreak, unleashing a chain of events which led to the revelation of the SARS outbreak in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province which the Chinese government had apparently concealed until then.
Our chatter from China joined the chatroom once more, about two weeks later. He posted to me the following description of the impact of the new disease: "It caused phnumonia, and fever, and cough. About 7 days if not treat right. It is maybe more than 1,000 guys died in this case" and he reported that "it began around Feb. 8." I relayed this information to Dr. Cunnion.
For the next several weeks, Dr. Cunnion forwarded related information as the story of this disease unfolded. The illness was tagged with many diagnoses and names, starting with bird flu and finally ending up as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. According to Dr. Cunnion, I was the first person in the U.S to report information about the SARS outbreak in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China.
Since then, I have followed the story of SARS with personal interest, hearing about the numbers of dead and ill, the Chinese government officials who lost their positions, the policies established at hospitals and points of entry around the world. The SARS story, for me, has been an incredible web of related, high-impact events. Personally, though, I remain unsatisfied. Though I forwarded information about the developing SARS epidemic to my chat room friend, he has not replied. Perhaps he left Guanzhou. But I have no idea if I was able to help that single Teachers.Net friend who had asked for help in the first place.
© Catherine Strommen May 6, 2003
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