Published: 20/03/2003, Volume II3, No. 5847 Page 6 7

Public health experts have expressed confidence in the public health system to cope with a possible outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), just as war is about to start and the Public Health Laboratory Service is replaced.

GPs and hospitals were this week notified of the symptoms of the disease, which can cause a severe form of pneumonia, following a global alert about outbreaks of SARS in east and south east Asia, and the first possible case in the UK. A patient at North Manchester General Hospital is undergoing tests for a mystery bug.

The alert came as Britain prepared to go to war in Iraq, and just two weeks before the abolition of PHLS, to be replaced by the new Health Protection Agency.

Faculty of public health medicine president Professor Sian Griffiths said she was very confident the health service would cope with any potential outbreak, but that the war against Iraq would have a more damaging effect on public health.

She said: 'It is obviously worrying when you get a new bug, but war about to start is probably more relevant. There are all the issues about the troops coming back and there are probably far more stresses on the health service. War is the major stress, but the two things together make it very difficult.'

Professor Griffiths said she believed the right preparations had been made to cope with any possible outbreak of SARS, although it was impossible to predict how serious an outbreak could become.

UK Public Health Association chief executive Ian MacArthur said: 'Of course, everyone is concerned about the development, but PHA has been long needed to focus efforts on health protection matters.

'The timing is difficult because we are moving into this period. Clearly the system that has served us well for years can cope with this.'