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SARS - a global threat

BEIJING APRIL 7. Before: Man catches cold in hometown. Spreads it to a few neighbours. Goes home, perhaps infects his wife and children. Climbs into bed until he's well.

Now: Man catches cold in hometown. Boards 747 from Hong Kong to Singapore, Bangkok, maybe even Frankfurt. Spends hours sharing air and spreading droplets inside metal machine with hundreds of others. Emerges, hacking up phlegm, into an entirely new community of people ripe for infection.

Globalisation — the 21st-century reality of humans reaching other continents and disparate communities of millions within hours — is also a global opportunity for disease, a reality dramatically underscored by the swift spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

SARS has killed 98 people as it has hopscotched around the globe, cropping up in places as disparate as Hanoi and Ontario after an apparent debut in southern China.

"If people who are sick keep insisting on flying, then that poses a new threat and it gives a new meaning to the word `globalisation,' Singapore's Health Minister, Lim Hng Kiang, said at a recent news conference about SARS.

He was talking about a Singaporean woman who fell sick on a business trip to Hong Kong and Beijing, then went home — possibly infecting fellow airplane passengers, airport immigration officials and her taxi driver in the process. She moved fast, and it moved fast with her.

It's not just the physical contact that feeds this. The multitude of connections that have become easier — e-mail, instant telephone communication, technology that gives us a sense that things are nearer — are uniting people and making ties stronger. That in turn increases, on an enormous scale, the contacts that people have — and, eventually, pursue in person.

One look at the movement of SARS in recent weeks bears that out. Its spread appears in line with alliances in the business community — who travels where to buy and sell.

"Looking at this disease, you could probably plot the patterns of globalisation — who's related to who, who's investing with who, who visits who. This is what globalisation is," said an expert.

There was a time when most people stayed put, and the things they carried around — ideas, recipes, strange new diseases — largely stayed put too, or travelled far more slowly atop horse or aboard ship.

But for more than a century, the increasingly connected planet has created new dangers alongside the exciting innovations.

The 1918-19 Spanish flu epidemic, which killed some 40 million people worldwide, was believed to have been helped along by travelling World War I soldiers. And one of AIDS' very earliest patients — possibly the first in North America — was a flight steward who infected people in New York and Los Angeles. — AP

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