SARS Rumor, PM’s Remarks Draw Concern

At least one health official ex­pressed concern over statements made Thursday by Prime Min­ister Hun Sen, who said the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome can’t survive in sunlight or Cambodia’s high temperatures, a statement that is not scientifically proven.

“[The World Health Organiza­tion] presented to Asean’s heads of state that [SARS] is not contracted by breathing, only [through] touching. When it is out [in sunlight], it will die in three hours,” Hun Sen said at a tourism conference in Phnom Penh. “Here it is hot.”

In fact no data exists on the life-span or unusual vulnerabilities of the SARS virus outside of laboratory conditions. SARS is not an airborne disease but is transmitted through droplets from a cough or sneeze, according to the WHO.

“We cannot say that Cambodia is protected because of temperature,” a health official said on condition of anonymity.

The SARS virus is sensitive to direct sunlight, but no figures exist concerning its lifespan in sunlight. The virus has survived in stool or urine for as long as four days in laboratories.

Normal microbes are killed within 15 minutes at 60 degrees Celsius, and there is no indication that the SARS virus behaves differently, according to the WHO. Cambodia’s normal temperature range peaks at 35 degrees Celsius.

Hun Sen said he was not concerned that Chinese visitors would spread SARS to Cambodia, which has no reported cases.

The Ministry of Health, meanwhile, moved to quell a rumor that green beans served sweet could keep SARS at bay.

Health Ministry Secretary of State Mam Bun Heng said the rumor had no scientific basis.

“It’s a big mistake. There is no medicine against SARS,” he said.

The rumor had hundreds calling nationwide to alert friends of the potential prevention, as people rushed to buy green beans before midnight. A false rumor had also circulated, this one saying that SARS would come to Cambodian at midnight.

An upsurge of calls jammed mobile phone networks, and Mobitel traffic jumped 80 percent between 9 pm and midnight compared to the night before, Mobitel General Manager David Spriggs said.

“My brother in Banteay Meanchey called my sister in Battambang, who called me [in Siem Reap],” said a 23-year-old woman who would only identify herself by the name Diep. “She told me to eat beans and pray.”

Diep’s sister said a US citizen phoned Cambodian relatives with the advice.

O’ Russei Market bean seller Chhay Sean said he heard that a Cambodian newborn conceived in the US miraculously started speaking Wednesday, prophesying that Cambodians would contract SARS unless they ate green beans and palm sugar.

After closing his stall, Chhay Sean said he purchased several kilograms of beans to sell at home. He said neighbors knocked on his door until 1 am.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Soun Chheangly said he ordered local authorities to uncover the source of the rumor.

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