Some Notes About SARS

IJsselstein, Wednesday, 9 April 2003 16:58:49

The recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China has made a lot of people reluctant to travel to Asia. However, we are still convinced it safe and reasonable to travel to the Philippines.

New cases of SARS continue to be reported from Canada, The U.S., Hong Kong and China. However, these reports continue to suggest that the virus is poorly spread by casual community contact. Close contact with a symptomatic individual poses the greatest risk. Virtually all new cases have been tracked to a known source or location. For example, all new cases in Hong Kong have been identified as healthcare workers, contacts of previously known cases or residents of a single apartment complex.

To help you understand the situation better, we present some questions and answers about SARS, as known today.

Question and Answers on SARS

Q. How many people have been infected with SARS? How many have died?

A. To date, roughly 2500 people have been identified with SARS. Less than 100 fatalities have been reported worldwide. The risk of death from the infection is between 2-3%. To place these numbers in perspective, between three and five million people contract influenza yearly around the world. The "flu" claims between 250,000-500,000 lives, roughly 8% of all cases. Despite the numerous reports and anxiety associated with the illness, SARS remains very uncommon with a good response to early aggressive therapy.

Q. What are the symptoms of SARS?

A. The most frequent symptoms are fever above 38 C / 101 F, dry cough and shortness of breath. Other less common symptoms include muscle aches, headache and nausea.

Q. What is the latest on the test to diagnose SARS?

A. Two rapid diagnostic tests have been developed by the CDC. Both are being evaluated for accuracy at the present time and are not available to the public. It is possible that the tests will be available at hospitals and clinical laboratories within the next several days. We will provide updates on the availability of these tests daily.

Q. How contagious is SARS?

A. This virus is less likely to be transmitted than influenza. Close contact with respiratory droplets is most often required. Casual contact, such as might occur in an office, poses a much smaller risk.

Q. What is considered close personal contact?

A. For the purposes of this illness, "close personal contact" may be considered being within a distance of a meter for at least several minutes during a time when an ill individual is coughing, sneezing, or has secretions on hands or clothes.

Q. When are individuals infected with SARS contagious?

A. Patients infected with the SARS virus are most contagious while they have symptoms. There is little risk to others during the incubation period or after recovery.

Q. What should I know about travel to or from affected areas?

A. Several countries have issued official warnings against travel to China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Singapore.

Persons with any active infectious illness should not attempt to travel by train, bus, plane or boat. Around the world, airport and port screening programs have been established, which will prevent ill travelers from entering their destination country.

Travelers should also be alert to specific guidelines and requirements at destination countries. In some cases, specific restrictions are being imposed on all travelers arriving from affected countries. Please contacting your travel agent or airline company if you have questions about a specific destination.

Q. Should individuals in affected areas wear a mask?

A. The U.S. CDC recommends masks, gloves, and gowns for healthcare workers and family members taking care of ill individuals. It is also sensible for close contacts of someone known or suspected of having SARS to do the same. The patient should also wear a mask. Wearing a mask in public places has become common practice in several Asian cities. Given the low risk of transmission from casual contact, however, this practice is not medically necessary.

Q. What about hand washing and sterilization?

A. It is likely that the virus lives on inanimate surfaces for only a few hours. Household members in contact with SARS patients need careful hand hygiene, including hand washing with soap and water; if hands are not visibly soiled, alcohol-based handrubs may be used as an alternative to hand washing. Only handwipes containing antiviral compounds would be useful to kill the virus. Most antiviral handrubs are clearly labeled. Additional information on hand hygiene is available at the CDC Hand Hygiene site.

Q. Where can I get additional information and updates?

A. Two excellent sources are the World Health Organization, and the U. S. Centers for Disease Control.