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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.

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