Health officials say severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is here to stay, and Baptists are among those coping in high-outbreak areas.

“It is difficult knowing what to think about the current situation in Hong Kong,” John Gravley, an American Baptist missionary there, wrote in an online journal on a mission Web site.

The World Health Organization last week reported 17 new cases and six more deaths in Hong Kong. To date, 1,527 cases have been diagnosed in Hong Kong, and 121 people there have died from the disease.
In a city of nearly 7 million, Gravley said, the odds of catching SARS are statistically low, but people have little information, are afraid and don’t know what to do.

“People are advised to avoid crowds, so I wondered how many people would be at church,” he wrote. “I was somewhat surprised to see a big crowd. Of course over half of the people wore surgical masks. The worship leader used a sterile wipe to clean the microphone after each person spoke. And when it was time to share the Lord’s Supper, I had to wear a mask and latex gloves.”

Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary has canceled all activities except normal classes and chapel services. Professors and students were asked to wear masks while on campus and to keep doors and windows open for ventilation.

The Baptist World Alliance postponed its world youth conference, scheduled this summer in Hong Kong, until 2004. “We had hoped that this would not be necessary,” said Emmett Dunn, director of the BWA Youth Department, “but the BWA must act responsibly to protect the thousands of young people we expected in Hong Kong and move to allay the fears of many people who were concerned that the disease would not be under control by July.”

The BWA also moved its July 7-12 general council meeting from Korea to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While there have been no cases of SARS reported in Korea, the general council decided to wait another year to meet there, so the meeting can be held in the same region as the youth conference.

Officials at the Hong Kong Baptist Convention issued a statement calling it a “painful decision” to postpone the youth conference, but also a “realistic and decisive response to the current situation.”

CNN on Monday quoted a World Health Organization official as saying he believes the worst of SARS is over in Vietnam, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong. The disease continues to spread, however, in mainland China.

The WHO gave Vietnam a clean bill of health Monday, declaring it the first country to have the virus under control.

Canadian officials bristled, meanwhile, when the WHO issued a travel warning against Toronto. Twenty deaths in Canada are attributed to SARS.

“It’s perfectly safe to walk down the street in Toronto, and all of us walk down the street every day, without masks,” James Young, Ontario’s commissioner of public security, told the Associated Press.

Major League Baseball cautioned teams playing in Toronto to avoid public transportation, hospitals and crowds. The league first discouraged players from giving autographs but later amended that to say that if players want to sign autographs, they should use their own pens.

The Toronto Blue Jays countered by putting all remaining tickets for tonight’s game on sale for $1, which is equivalent to about 70 cents in U.S. currency.

Toronto’s Anglican and Roman Catholic communions changed the way worshippers take communion Easter Sunday to safeguard against infection. Priests were instructed to place communion wafers in parishioners hands instead of on their tongues. Worshippers were asked not to kiss the crucifix, but instead to bow or kneel.

Hand-shaking that usually occurs with the “passing the peace” was replaced by gestures like a bow, Religion News Service reported.

“Our board of deacons decided the situation was serious enough that we should take similar action,” said William Norman, pastor of Blythwood Road Baptist Church in Toronto. “Beginning with Good Friday, we posted signs at entrances asking people to greet one another with a nod, smile or bow, and our greeters were instructed to do this.”

Norman said he knows of no one among the sick or quarantined with direct ties to his congregation.

“Perhaps the major way I see people in the congregation affected is that many homebound members living in institutional settings are not permitted visitors,” Norman said. “Both the homebound and those family and friends who visit miss this contact.”

Norman said he has not preached on SARS, but has addressed it in intercessory prayer and a weekly prayer letter that is e-mailed within the congregation.

U.S. health officials said Sunday it is possible to prevent SARS from spreading throughout the world, but it is unlikely it will be eradicated.

“If we do the kind of common-sense public health measures we know work, we ought to be able to stop it from being a global pandemic,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Worldwide, 4,836 cases have been diagnosed, and SARS is attributed to 293 deaths in 26 countries. More than half the cases (2,753) are in China, where the outbreak is thought to have started. A total of 2,239 patients around the world have recovered from the disease.

About 250 cases have been reported in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite widespread concern, those numbers are small when compared to an influenza epidemic in 1918 that incapacitated a billion people (the world population then was 1.8 billion) and killed 20 million in the course of eight weeks.

The death toll from SARS also pales when compared to the leading causes of death in America. According to the National Vital Statistics report, nearly 700,000 Americans die each year from heart disease, and more than a half-million succumb to cancer.

Other leading killers in the U.S. are stroke (163,000 deaths annually), chronic lower-respiratory disease (123,900), accidents (97,000), diabetes (71,000), pneumonia/influenza (62,000) and Alzheimer’s Disease (53,000).

Bob Allen is managing editor for

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