SARS is a viral respiratory illness that 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. SARS is caused by a coronavirus, called the SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). The illness usually starts with a fever, sometimes accompanied by chills, headache, malaise, and body aches. In a period of two to 10 days, patients may develop a dry cough that progresses to respiratory distress that, in 10 to 20 percent of cases, requires mechanical ventilation. During the 2003 outbreak, 8,098 people became sick and 774 died.
A recent new outbreak of SARS occurred in China, originating in a laboratory where the SARS-CoV was being studied. As of April 30, 2004 there were 5 probable cases and 4 suspected cases of SARS reported in this current outbreak related to laboratory-acquired infection. All cases reported to date had close contact with original or secondary cases.
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. 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. SARS cases can be confirmed in clinically compatible cases using PCR (a laboratory method for detecting the genetic material of an infectious disease agent in specimens from patients) tests and blood serology performed by the CDC. No effective antiviral treatment for SARS has yet been identified. Therefore, CDC recommends that patients with SARS receive the same treatment that would be used for a patient with any serious community-acquired atypical pneumonia. SARS-CoV is being tested against various antiviral drugs to see if an effective treatment can be found. Early identification of potential cases and rapid institution of appropriate isolation and infection control procedures are essential to prevent spread of the disease.
If you become ill with a fever of more than 100.4ºF that is accompanied by cough or difficulty breathing (or that progresses to a cough and/or difficulty breathing), and you have traveled within the last 10 days to areas where cases of SARS have been reported, you should contact your physician. The Lahey Center for Infectious Diseases is ready to assist your physician in the evaluation of such illnesses.
For the most up to date information about SARS, visit the CDC's SARS Web page.