SARS survivors left disabled by the cure, now without help

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/SCMP) – Hong Kong SARS survivors fear a future of poverty and illness after their government disabilities run out.

The first SARS cases appeared in Guangdong at the end of 2002. In Hong Kong, the authorities failed to intervene for a long time before the outbreak came in March of the following year. Altogether 1,755 people were infected and 351 died.

Scientists and medical staff found themselves hopelessly impotent vis-à-vis the disease since no known treatment was available. In desperation, they tried all sorts of treatments like steroids to stem the tide and in three months results proved positive and the outbreak was stopped. However, the treatments had serious side effects so that hundreds of the 1,404 survivors now suffer from memory loss, osteoporosis and a crippling bone disease known as avascular necrosis (AVN), which is caused when blood stops flowing to the bones, leading to the death of bone cells, affecting mobility and causing pain.

Those who have not yet exhibited these side effects are living in fear that they, too, might one day experience them. Many who are suffering can no longer work and have to rely on the government's fund for living and medical expenses.

In Canada and Taiwan, where steroids were not used or used in very small quantities, such side effects were not produced.

Following patient and social pressure, the authorities in November 2003 set up a SARS Trust Fund worth US$ 150 million to give families of the deceased a one-time payment and survivors a monthly pension. However, the Fund had a US$ 500,000 limit per individual—one day, no matter what the state of their recovery, this support will run out.

In fact, according to the Health, Welfare and Food Bureau, four people have reached that limit.

The welfare of these people—victims of the Bureau's lack of preparedness and of a containment strategy that turned them into guinea pigs for the world—seems less and less a priority given the cost of treatment, which can run in the thousands of US dollars.

Yip Hing-kwok, a Kwun Tong district councillor who helps the Amoy Gardens SARS victims, urged the government to provide them with long-term care.

"They have lost their ability to work because of SARS. If the government had handled the SARS outbreak better, it might not have been so widespread, and not so many people might have been infected. It has a responsibility to help them," he said.

According to some SARS patients, the authorities have been tightening approvals for the renewal of applications in their half-year health assessments—rejecting many, while delaying others.

The Hospital Authority rejected the criticism, saying that as time passed more people would recover and fewer would need financial support.

But Tim Pang Hung-cheong, of the Patients Rights Association of the Society for Community Organisation, disagreed with the Authority.

"Some will never recover and will be unable to ever work again," he said. "How can the government set up a limit when they don't know the outcome?"