SARS: What Is It? What's Causing It? What Should You Do?

As if we didn't have enough to think about, we now have a newly discovered respiratory disease that is considered serious enough to unite the world community in an effort to fight and defeat this potential killer. Its name is SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and it's making a medical and economic impact worldwide.

As of April 21, 2003, there have been more than 4,000 cases of SARS and 217 deaths reported worldwide. In the United States, there are at least 220 suspected cases and, fortunately, no deaths.



What Is SARS?

Unfortunately, we don't know a lot about SARS — yet. It's still being identified, but here's what we do know: SARS was first reported sometime after Feb. 1, 2003, in Guangdong province (China), Hanoi (Vietnam) and Hong Kong.

Concerned that this mysterious illness could spread to other parts of the world, health authorities in Singapore notified the World Health Organization (WHO). Within hours, WHO declared a worldwide emergency travel advisory, which stated that SARS was a global health threat.

What's Causing SARS?

Scientists have determined that SARS is caused by a new form of the coronavirus never before seen in humans. The identification of the virus means that scientists can now begin working on a vaccine to control and/or eradicate the virus.

Top laboratories — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — in eight different countries have been working round the clock to get a handle on the virus. WHO is collecting the information and connecting specialists worldwide via a daily conference call. There's truly a global effort to help control and treat the disease.

How Is SARS Diagnosed?

If we didn't know about the potential danger of SARS, we might put it into a "flu-like" illness category. However, there are notable differences with SARS, including shortness of breath and low oxygen levels in the blood.

SARS is characterized by a temperature of more than 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, combined with one or more of the following:

  • dry cough
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing
  • low-blood oxygen levels
  • an X-ray that shows either pneumonia or some type of respiratory-distress ailment
  • Travel (within 10 days of symptoms) to mainland China, Hong Kong, Hanoi or Singapore
  • Close contact (within 10 days of illness) with someone who has traveled to a SARS area, or who is suspected of having SARS.

To date, there is no approved test to diagnose SARS. However, the CDC, along with some other labs, is getting closer to developing a test that identifies the culprit virus.

Who's at Risk for SARS?

According to the CDC, "cases of SARS continue to be reported primarily among persons who have had direct close contact with an infected person. "Close contact" is defined by "anyone who has cared for, lived with, or had direct contact with respiratory droplets such as mucous, or body fluids of a patient suspected or known to have SARS."

It also applies to health-care workers who didn't follow infection-control procedures while taking care of a patient with SARS (these risks contributed to the spread of SARS in some parts of Canada).

And it also has affected travelers to and from Hong Kong, Hanoi, Singapore and mainland China.


What Do SARS Sufferers Experience?

Within 10 days of exposure, the illness usually begins with a fever of 100.5 F or greater. The victim also may have chills, headache, body aches and some breathing problems.

Between two and seven days after SARS presents, patients experience a dry cough and difficulty breathing. In 10 percent to 20 percent of the cases, patients have needed a ventilator for oxygen.



How Is SARS Treated?

The CDC recommends that health-care professionals treat SARS patients in the same way they would treat someone with an unknown type of pneumonia.

There have been different treatment approaches used throughout the affected countries, and the CDC is in constant communication with officials and health-care workers there.

Current treatment approaches have included antiviral medications as well as antibiotics and steroids to help the respiratory system. Please be assured that the majority of patients who have been suspected of having SARS have done well.

So ... What Should You Do About SARS?

First off, please don't panic if someone coughs or sneezes in the mall, a restaurant or any other public place you may be in.

It's important to realize that our country - especially in an age of bioterrorism preparedness - has a very up-to-date and widespread disease-monitoring system.

My office has had calls asking if it's OK to eat at a Chinese restaurant, or to go to an airport where travelers from the Far East may be present. The answer to both questions is: "Yes, it's OK." SARS isn't spread by food, nor does it seem to affect people who have just casually walked by an infected person.

Be assured: In the event of a local health concern, the CDC will issue a medical alert as well as a health advisory. For the latest and most up-to-date information about SARS, please go to the CDC Web site.

Copyright 2003, Dr. Rob Danoff

Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., is a family physician. He is program director of Family Practice Residency Frankford Hospitals, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia, Pa. He also is a medical correspondent for The Comcast Network, CN8, contributing writer to the New York Times and writes a weekly medical column for the Bucks Courier Times, Bucks County Pa.