3. "SARS" versus "atypical pneumonia": Inconsistencies in Hong Kong's public health warnings and disease-prevention campaign

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When Hong Kong first reported cases of SARS, the government developed a public health campaign to warn and educate the local community and international travelers about the highly-contagious disease. Unfortunately, concern that the similarity of the acronyms for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong <i>SAR</i>) and the illness (<i>SARS</i>) would have negative political and economic impact on the territory appears to have led Hong Kong officials to use the term <i>atypical pneumonia </i>interchangeably with <i>SARS</i>, the official name coined for the illness by the World Health Organization, long after it was appropriate to do so. This errant usage probably resulted in inconsistent and misleading public health information, late quarantine policy, inadequate safety measures, and higher than necessary infection and death rates. The lessons of Hong Kong’s tragic experience are familiar: words are important, words have consequences, and words are ethical choices that can make a difference in how people respond to the events that are labeled by them.


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