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March 12th, 2013
01:04 PM ET

How data stopped SARS

10 years on, SARS survivor Cathy Kong is still haunted by the outbreak.

Outside the Amoy Gardens housing estate, her former home and site of the biggest community outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong, Cathy tells me how she used her willpower to cast the virus away.

“I talked to the virus,” she tells me. “I talked to the disease: ‘go away, go away.”

The SARS outbreak killed 780 people and infected over 8,000 more. It crossed borders and triggered an international health scare.

A decade ago this week, the World Health Organization first named SARS - the deadly virus that would infect 29 countries before it was finally contained four months later.

And, looking back, what was the most indispensable tool that ended the outbreak?

According to Dr. Isabelle Nuttall, WHO Director of Global Capacities Alert and Response, it was data.

“It was good information,” Nuttall tells me from the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland.

“It was the need to identify every single case and isolate the case - to make sure patients were treated correctly and that no infection would spread from sick people.”

Nuttall warns that a deadly pandemic like SARS could happen again. The danger of human and animal systems colliding and creating a deadly virus is still very real.

“The human-animal interface continues to be there,” she says. “A virus can jump the barrier from animals to human, and this is why we need to maintain a constant vigilance system of alert in order to report any any case of a disease that would be severe.”

After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the WHO revised its International Health Regulations. Before the change, countries only had to report four diseases to the world body - smallpox, cholera, plague and yellow fever.

But after the revision, it became mandatory for countries to make additional reports - sharing data about new viral subtypes of human influenza and SARS, as well as any new infections after gauging their public health impact.

But many today are questioning whether China - ground zero of the SARS outbreak - would be fully open with news of an emerging epidemic.

The WHO assures me that all countries are transparent... only because technology has forced them to be.

“Everything can be shared within 30 seconds around the world through social media,” Dr. Nuttall says. “We benefit from improved communication.”

In the words of the WHO’s director-general Margaret Chan, who was in charge of Hong Kong’s Department of Health during the outbreak, “SARS revolutionized our understanding of the power of real-time communication.”

The first new disease of the 21st century was stopped in its tracks by data... and the determination of medical workers and survivors like Cathy Kong.

“The disease is over and the disaster is also over,” she says.

“I’m okay. I’m the lucky one.”

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