The pain of SARS

April 30, 2003

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comThe forthright and decisive manner in which the executive committee of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

The forthright and decisive manner in which the executive committee of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (SMRM) decided to postpone its May meeting deserves praise. Less than a day after the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory to Toronto as a result of concerns over severe acute respiratory syndrome, ISMRM issued its own declaration. It was a courageous move, as postponing this meeting negated months of planning, will incur economic losses to the society, and has triggered a scramble to find an alternative venue for the conference.

Never in the past 20 years can I recall such a situation. The closest came in the wake of 9/11, when the safety of air travel and attendance at large meetings was called into question. Then the case could be made that going to the RSNA meeting 10 weeks after the tragedy in New York was an obligation to resist evil, to face fear and to carry on. But this was something else, something very different.

There was no psychological tug of war between right and wrong, no bully to face down. The purveyor of fear this time was a mindless fragment of life. It was unleashed not to terrorize but as an outgrowth of nature. And that was the real nub of the matter. This microscopic beast required careful consideration.

ISMRM recognized correctly that far more was at stake than attendance at its trade show. It is not a dramatization to say that global health could have been affected, as infections-if they occurred-could have spread the SARS virus well beyond Toronto.

We should remember also that the decision was far from clear-cut. Toronto politicians and Canadian health officials ripped the WHO advisory as irresponsible. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shied away from advising people not to travel to Toronto, urging visitors instead to avoid healthcare facilities caring for SARS patients and to wash their hands.

Chinese officials are being criticized for covering up the early spread of SARS. But they had less reason to be concerned than officials in countries now being affected. Chinese officials early on were not aware of the global implications. Canadian officials are.

Abiding by the WHO advisory will cause economic pain to the ISMRM. But this action was necessary. A disease this lethal (6% of those infected die) cannot be given the opportunity to become established.

China has shown how easy it is to guess wrong.