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SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome)

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SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome)


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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
Respiratory system

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a severe respiratory infection that was first recognised in Guangdong Province in China in November 2002 and which quickly spread to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore and Toronto. By July 2003, 8437 cases of SARS had been reported, resulting in 813 deaths, and the disease had spread to over 30 countries including America, Australia, Europe and New Zealand.

Thanks to prompt detection of cases and isolation of patients the rapid spread of SARS was kept under control by July 2003. Between July 2003 and March 2004, four small outbreaks were reported but were rapidly contained.

Despite no further cases being reported since March 2004, SARS is not claimed to have been eradicated as it may still be present in animals. The possibility of SARS re-emergence remains, so the authorities advise continuing vigilance.


SARS is caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus. The main way that SARS appears to spread is by close person-to-person contact. Most cases of SARS involved people who cared for or lived with someone with SARS, or who had direct contact with infectious material (for example, respiratory secretions) from a person who had SARS. Potential ways in which SARS can be spread include touching the skin of other people or objects that are contaminated with infectious droplets and then touching your eye(s), nose, or mouth. This can happen when someone who is sick with SARS coughs or sneezes droplets onto themselves, other people, or nearby surfaces. It is also possible that SARS can be spread more broadly through the air, through faeces and urine or by other ways that are currently not known. Once infected it takes about 2 to 7 days for symptoms to appear.

In general, SARS begins with a fever greater than 100.4°F [38.0°C]. Other symptoms may include headache, an overall feeling of discomfort and body aches. Some people also experience mild respiratory symptoms. After 2 to 7 days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough and a rapid deterioration in respirator function that makes breathing difficult. Changes in chest X-rays indicative of pneumonia also occur. Other SARS symptoms include muscle ache, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash, and diarrhoea. These symptoms are typical for many respiratory illnesses and may be confused with colds or influenza.

There is no effective medicine or vaccine against SARS. Treatment amounts to keeping patients isolated to prevent the spread of the disease, and dealing with their symptoms while the infection runs its course.

When to see your doctor

Now that the SARS outbreak has been contained, it is highly unlikely that anyone developing the symptoms of a chest infection will have SARS. However, should there be another outbreak in the future and you think you (or someone in your family) might have SARS, you should:

  • Consult a health care provider as soon as possible. If possible, call ahead and advise the health care provider of the potential that the illness could be SARS.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with tissue when coughing or sneezing. If you have a surgical mask, wear it during close contact with other people. A mask can reduce the number of droplets coughed into the air
  • Stay home from work, school and other public activities until public health or your health care provider notifies you that it is safe for you to resume your normal activities.

Reviewed on 27 May 2011