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Homeland Security

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus, called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). SARS 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. The etiological agent, the SARS coronavirus (SARSCoV) is believed to be an animal virus that crossed the species barrier to humans recently when ecological changes or changes in human behaviour increased opportunities for human exposure to the virus and virus adaptation, enabling human-to-human transmission.

The natural reservoir of SARS-CoV has not been identified but a number of wildlife species the Himalayan masked palm civet (Paguma larvata), the Chinese ferret badger (Melogale moschata), and the raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) consumed as delicacies in southern China have shown laboratory evidence of infectionn with a related coronavirus. Domestic cats living in the Amoy Gardens apartment block in Hong Kong were also found to be infected with SARS-CoV. More recently, ferrets (Mustela furo) and domestic cats (Felis domesticus) were infected with SARS-CoV experimentally and found to efficiently transmit the virus to previously uninfected animals housed with them. These findings indicate that the reservoir for this pathogen may involve a range of animal species. The masked palm civet is the wildlife species most often associated with animal-to-human transmission; however, whether the civet is the natural reservoir of SARS-like coronaviruses remains unproven.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. In the United States, only eight people had laboratory evidence of SARS-CoV infection. All of these people had traveled to other parts of the world where SARS was spreading. SARS did not spread more widely in the community in the United States.

In general, SARS begins with a high fever (temperature greater than 100.4F [>38.0C]). Other symptoms may include headache, an overall feeling of discomfort, and body aches. Some people also have mild respiratory symptoms at the outset. About 10 percent to 20 percent of patients have diarrhea. After 2 to 7 days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough. Most patients develop pneumonia.

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(s). 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.

In the context of SARS, close contact means having cared for or lived with someone with SARS or having direct contact with respiratory secretions or body fluids of a patient with SARS. Examples of close contact include kissing or hugging, sharing eating or drinking utensils, talking to someone within 3 feet, and touching someone directly. Close contact does not include activities like walking by a person or briefly sitting across a waiting room or office.

CDC worked closely with WHO and other partners in a global effort to address the SARS outbreak of 2003. For its part, CDC took the following actions:

  • Activated its Emergency Operations Center to provide round-the-clock coordination and response.
  • Committed more than 800 medical experts and support staff to work on the SARS response.
  • Deployed medical officers, epidemiologists, and other specialists to assist with on-site investigations around the world.
  • Provided assistance to state and local health departments in investigating possible cases of SARS in the United States.
  • Conducted extensive laboratory testing of clinical specimens from SARS patients to identify the cause of the disease.
  • Initiated a system for distributing health alert notices to travelers who may have been exposed to cases of SARS.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome was first recognized as a global threat in mid-March 2003. The first known cases of SARS occurred in Guangdong province, China, in November 2002 and WHO reported that the last human chain of transmission of SARS in that epidemic had been broken on 5 July 2003. The epidemic caused significant social and economic disruption in areas with sustained local transmission of SARS and on the travel industry internationally in addition to the impact on health services directly.

Since July 2003, there have been four occasions when SARS has reappeared. Three of these incidents were attributed to breaches in laboratory biosafety and resulted in one or more cases of SARS (Singapore (1113), Taipei (14) and Beijing (15,16)). Fortunately only one of these incidents resulted in secondary transmission outside of the laboratory. The most recent incident was a cluster of nine cases, one of whom died, in three generations of transmission affecting family and hospital contacts of a laboratory worker.

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Page last modified: 28-01-2020 17:37:29 ZULU