Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a rapidly spreading, potentially fatal infectious viral disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), SARS was recognized as a global threat in March 2003. The viral disease first appeared in Southern China in November 2002 and spread to more than 24 countries in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America. By the spring of 2004, the outbreak appeared to be over.
Although they were dealing with a newly-discovered virus that behaved differently than other known viruses, world health officials were able to contain the SARS epidemic within a few short months. In order for another SARS outbreak to emerge, the SARS virus would need to be transmitted from an animal source, a laboratory accident, or humans who have not been rapidly diagnosed, isolated, and treated. China has reported a few cases of SARS since December 2003. Chinese health care professionals have heightened awareness of symptoms and are prepared to use proper infection control measures to prevent another outbreak.
A virus known as SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV) causes the illness. When viewed under a microscope, coronaviruses are a group of viruses that look like they have crowns or halos. Coronaviruses commonly cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness in humans, but can cause respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver, and neurologic diseases in animals.
As researchers quickly rushed to stop the spread of SARS in 2003, they learned more about the characteristics of SARS-CoV, which had never been identified before. While they still have not confirmed the disease’s origin, many believe SARS-CoV first occurred in animals and then spread to humans.
In humans, the virus’ incubation period from exposure to infection is two to seven days, although infection has taken as long as 10 days in some cases. However, not everyone exposed to the disease becomes ill.
Scientists from around the world are collaborating to gain a better understanding of the cause of SARS.
Research is currently underway to develop an effective antiviral drug for SARS-CoV. Until then, SARS patients may receive the same treatment that any patient with severe atypical pneumonia might receive. This treatment is mainly supportive therapy, with oxygen and fluids to help ease symptoms, and antibiotics to help prevent or treat secondary infections.