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Nurses on front lines of SARS battle worldwide

April 25, 2003 -- Many publications have recently run articles about the critical role nurses are playing in the global fight against SARS. Debra Black's piece in today's Toronto Star effectively describes the daily struggle of nurse Bonnie Anderson and her colleagues in the SARS unit at Toronto General Hospital. The article explains the strict infection control precautions required of those who care for SARS patients, which include regular screening and tightly controlled and cumbersome procedures in the patient area. The piece also describes the alienation SARS unit nurses face when fellow citizens learn where they work, and the constant stress of knowing that one infection control mistake could be fatal.

An April 17 article on the BBC News web site featured the eyewitness account of Vietnamese nurse Nguyen Thi Men, at that time "the only health worker at the center of Vietnam's Sars outbreak to fall severely ill and survive." Ms. Nguyen evidently caught the disease as a result of caring for a Chinese-American patient who later died, as have some of Ms. Nguyen's colleagues. The article also describes her difficult, ongoing recovery and the reluctance of people to visit her because of the fear of infection.

Other articles have noted that the global nursing shortage makes dealing with the SARS outbreak even harder. An April 25 Reuters piece by Amran Abocar focuses on the exhaustion SARS has caused to Toronto's front-line health workers. It notes that the disease has been especially difficult because the shortage had already pushed many nurses to the breaking point, and because of recent funding cuts in the nation's universal health care program. Ontario has reportedly asked for help from the Canadian military and other provinces to give its health workers a respite.

An interesting April 24 op-ed piece by Jamie Swift in the Globe and Mail suggests that the Toronto SARS crisis points up the problems with the current centralized, hospital-based health care model. Ms. Swift notes that the current system entails large numbers of health workers and the sick converging to potentially infect each other, and that SARS has also led to limits on non-SARS patients' access to hospital care. She argues that comprehensive home care programs that form a time-tested, decentralized alternative, such as the Victorian Order of Nurses, are being marginalized in today's market-oriented care system.