Severe acute respiratory syndrome

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In Guandong, China, an outbreak of atypical pneumonia struck affecting a reported 305 cases with two deaths. It was said to have started in November 2002 and peaked between February 3 and 14, and eventually has been controlled and the patients were cured.

On February 26, in Hanoi, Vietnam, a single initial case was hospitalized for treatment of an acute respiratory syndrome of unknown origin. He felt unwell during his journey and fell ill shortly after arrival in Hanoi from Shanghai and Hongkong. Following his admission to the hospital, approximately 20 hospital staff became sick with similar symptoms.

In Hong Kong, the Department of Health there reported an outbreak of a respiratory illness in one of its public hospitals. About 50 health care workers were screened and some of them were found to have febrile (feverish) illness. They were admitted to the hospital for observation and precautionary measure.

About 90% of the early cases in Vietnam and Hong Kong were health care workers. The series of events prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a global alert on March 8 because of concerns that the illness would spread to North America and Europe.

And the disease did spread there. The first North American fatalities were a woman and her grown son who died in Toronto after, visiting Hong Kong. Meanwhile, a 32-year-old physician from Singapore suspected of having the disease was taken off an airliner during a stopover in Frankfurt. Germany after being in New York City for a medical conference.

Experts Call It SARS

The illness is being called "severe acute respiratory syndrome" or SARS. The incubation period appears to be three to seven days. It often begins with a high fever and other flu-like symptoms, such as headache and sore throat. Victims typically develop cough, pneumonia, shortness of breath and other breathing difficulties. Death results from respiratory failure.

Investigators suspect a virus is involved, because victims do not seem to respond well to standard antibiotics, which kill only bacteria, and because their white blood counts drop. That typically happens with viral infections but not bacterial ones.

Tests have ruled out the H5N1 bird flu, which has popped up occasionally in China and which many fear could be catastrophic if it spread widely among humans.

Experts also discounted the possibility that bioterrorism is the source.

On March 19, Health Secretary Manuel M. Dayrit, in collaboration with the WHO, reported that initial studies made by scientists on the samples from SARS cases show resemblance to a virus group that causes measles and mumps, also known as paramyxovirus.

On April 16, the WHO announced that a new pathogen, a member of the coronavirus never before seen in humans, is the cause of SARS. This finding was the result of the close international collaboration of 13 laboratories from 10 countries.

The WHO also confirmed that the outbreak in China was in fact SARS.

Signs and Symptoms of SARS

  • fever (more than 38 °C)
  • body aches
  • respiratory symptoms:
    • cough
    • sore throat
    • shortness of breath
    • difficulty of breathing


  • Health Beat Magazine Issue no. 41. Department of Health of the Philippines. (Accessed on May 27, 2010).