Everything you need to know about SARS

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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an infectious condition that can cause serious respiratory illness and sometimes death. SARS became a concern in 2003 when an outbreak that began in China spread worldwide causing a global epidemic. The disease was contained and there have been no cases of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004.

About SARS

SARS is caused by a corona virus, the same family of viruses that causes some common colds. Like most respiratory viruses, SARS appeared to spread from person to person through coughing, sneezing and close contact. Symptoms of the infection seen during the 2003 outbreak included those similar to the flu: fever, cough, chills, fatigue, shortness of breath, headache and diarrhea. The infection progressed rapidly and most people with SARS needed to be hospitalized and isolated to prevent spread of the virus to other people, including healthcare workers.

Impact of SARS Epidemic

The 2003 epidemic was responsible for more than 8,000 cases of SARS in 29 countries, including 29 cases in the United States. There were 774 SARS-related deaths; none reported in the U.S. SARS was fatal for 1 in 10 patients. Age was an important factor in mortality; the risk of the disease being fatal increased to about half of patients over the age of 60. A small percentage of patients had long-term effects from their illness, including depression or anxiety, cough, shortness of breath, chronic lung disease or kidney disease. However, most patients fully recovered.

Preventing SARS

Although there have been no cases of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004, preventing spread of this illness is similar to preventing any viral respiratory infection: avoid close contact with affected individuals, wash your hands with soap and water, and encourage people with viral respiratory infections to cover their mouth when coughing or sneezing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) continues to monitor disease activity worldwide and has established guidelines for emergency preparedness and response should another SARS outbreak ever emerge

 What is SARS?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a corona virus, called SARS-associated corona virus (SARS). SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. Over the next few months, the illness spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia before the SARS global outbreak of 2003 was contained. This fact sheet gives basic information about the illness and what CDC did to control SARS in the United States.

The SARS outbreak of 2003

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. In the United States, only eight people had laboratory evidence of SARS infection. All of these people had traveled to other parts of the world where SARS was spreading. SARS did not spread more widely in the community in the United States. See an update on SARS cases in the United States and worldwide as of December 2003.

Symptoms of SARS

In general, SARS begins with a high fever (temperature greater than 100.4°F [>38.0°C]). Other symptoms may include headache, an overall feeling of discomfort, and body aches. Some people also have mild respiratory symptoms at the outset. About 10 percent to 20 percent of patients have diarrhea. After 2 to 7 days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough. Most patients develop pneumonia.

How SARS spreads

The main way that SARS seems to spread is by close person-to-person contact. The virus that causes SARS is thought to be transmitted most readily by respiratory droplets (droplet spread) produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Droplet spread can happen when droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person are propelled a short distance (generally up to 3 feet) through the air and deposited on the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, or eyes of persons who are nearby. The virus also can spread when a person touches a surface or object contaminated with infectious droplets and then touches his or her mouth, nose, or eye(s). In addition, it is possible that the SARS virus might spread more broadly through the air (airborne spread) or by other ways that are not now known.

What does “close contact” mean?

In the context of SARS, close contact means having cared for or lived with someone with SARS or having direct contact with respiratory secretions or body fluids of a patient with SARS. Examples of close contact include kissing or hugging, sharing eating or drinking utensils, talking to someone within 3 feet, and touching someone directly. Close contact does not include activities like walking by a person or briefly sitting across a waiting room or office.

CDC’s response to SARS during the 2003 outbreak

CDC worked closely with WHO and other partners in a global effort to address the SARS outbreak of 2003. For its part, CDC took the following actions:

  • Activated its Emergency Operations Center to provide round-the-clock coordination and response.
  • Committed more than 800 medical experts and support staff to work on the SARS response.
  • Deployed medical officers, epidemiologists, and other specialists to assist with on-site investigations around the world.
  • Provided assistance to state and local health departments in investigating possible cases of SARS in the United States.
  • Conducted extensive laboratory testing of clinical specimens from SARS patients to identify the cause of the disease.
  • Initiated a system for distributing health alert notices to travelers who may have been exposed to cases of SARS.
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