What Happened To SARS?
A disease which held the headlines of every major news vehicle only a few months
ago has now faded to the back pages only 7 months after the first reported case
in Feb. 2003. The severe pneumonia first detected in China and then Vietnam
had a striking hallmark: it was highly contagious to health care workers and
tested negative for all previously known causes of respiratory disease. Newly
named SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), this disease quickly spread
to 30 countries in nearly as many days claiming more than 800 lives and terrifying
millions of others. This disease crippled tourism and airports in several countries
and caused many other rippling effects from school closures to quarantines and
various forms of discrimination. Now, according to data from the World Health
Organization (WHO), SARS appears to have peaked and is now declining. The question
remains as to whether this represents true containment of the virus or whether
this is simply a seasonal effect as seen with most other forms of the flu.
Will it return with a vengeance next winter? This remains to be seen.
What did we learn about SARS? We learned that the host animals were wild civets
and raccoon dogs, considered culinary delicacies in southeastern China. In
infected humans, there is a wide range for the incubation period: it takes
5 to 15 days from exposure until symptoms develop. As a result, apparently
healthy people can travel anywhere in the world after exposure before signs
of clinical infection. The disease is most likely spread through close person-to-person
contact. Healthcare workers are at particularly high risk.
Symptoms are similar to other types of pneumonia: fever, chills, muscles aches,
and diarrhea are common. There is not always a clear route of exposure.
Where do we stand? SARS currently has no specific diagnostic tests, no vaccine,
and no specific treatment. Vaccine development is in high gear, however. The
virus itself has been identified through the international efforts of the WHO
and affiliated laboratories. In the meantime, basic public health initiatives
including quarantines and case-controlled investigations seem to have been effective.
While we may not hear about SARS on a routine basis now, we haven't heard the
last of it. Hopefully, the next wave of SARS information will be good news.
Created: 9/15/2003  - Donnica Moore, M.D.