Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Frequently Asked Questions
This page contains a list of frequently asked questions on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
Last updated 13 August 2010 - minor change made to question 2
Q. What is SARS?
A. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) is a viral lung disease caused by a newly recognised coronavirus, SARS-CoV. It was first recognized as a global threat in March 2003, after first appearing in Southern China in November 2002.
Q. How many people contracted SARS during the 2003 outbreak?
A. During November 2002 through July 2003, a total of 8,096 people worldwide became sick with severe acute respiratory syndrome that was accompanied by either pneumonia or respiratory distress syndrome (probable cases), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, 774 died. By late July 2003, no new cases were being reported, and WHO declared the global outbreak to be over.
Q. How many people in Australia contracted SARS during the 2003 outbreak?
A. In Australia, only one SARS case was confirmed – a German traveller who acquired the infection in Hong Kong in late February 2003 and then travelled to Australia where she developed an influenza-like illness. She was detected retrospectively by German health authorities conducting a look-back study of German contacts of cases in Hong Kong. There was no evidence of community transmission of SARS in Australia related to this case. An additional 5 patients, unconnected to the German traveller, were reported to WHO as probable SARS cases but none were able to be confirmed by laboratory testing.
Q. Have there been any other SARS outbreaks?
A. Since July 2003, there have been four occasions when SARS has reappeared – one community cluster and three laboratory incidents. In December 2003, China reported a cluster of four sporadic community-acquired cases arising in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, over a six-week period. Three of those cases were attributed to exposure to animal or environmental sources while the source of exposure is unknown in the other case. There was no further community transmission.
The three laboratory incidents were attributed to breaches in laboratory biosafety and resulted in one or more cases of SARS – Singapore (September 2003; 1 case), Taipei (December 2003; 1 case), and Beijing (April 2004; 9 cases). The most recent laboratory incident in Beijing resulted in 9 cases, 7 of which were associated with one chain of transmission and with hospital spread. Two additional cases at the same laboratory with a history of illness compatible with SARS in February 2004 were detected as part of a survey of contacts at the facility.
Q. How is SARS spread?
A. The main way that SARS appears to spread is by close person-to-person contact. SARS-CoV is thought to be transmitted most readily by respiratory droplets 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 1 metre) through the air and deposited on the lining of the mouth, nose, or eyes of people 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 eyes. It is also possible that SARS-CoV might be spread more easily through the air under certain circumstances not yet known.
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Q. What are the symptoms of SARS?
A. The illness usually begins with a high fever (body temperature greater than 38.0°C). The fever is sometimes associated with chills or other symptoms, including headache, general feeling of discomfort, confusion and body aches. Some people also experience mild respiratory symptoms at the start. Diarrhoea is seen in 10 to 20 per cent of patients. After 2 to 7 days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough that may lead to increasing shortness of breath. Most patients develop pneumonia.
Q. If I were exposed to SARS, how long would it take for me to become sick?
A. Most cases have become unwell between 2 and 7 days after exposure to a person ill with SARS, in some cases this has been up to 10 days.
Q. How long is a person with SARS infectious to others?
A. Available information suggests that persons with SARS are most likely to be contagious only when they have symptoms, such as fever or cough. Patients are most contagious during the second week of illness. However, as a precaution against spreading the disease, SARS patients are recommended to stay at home for at least 10 days after their fever has gone away and their breathing symptoms have resolved.
Q. What medical treatment is recommended for patients with SARS?
A. Patients with SARS receive the same treatment that would be used for a patient with any serious community-acquired atypical pneumonia. SARS-CoV is being tested against various antiviral drugs to see if a more specific treatment can be found.
People who are ill enough to be hospitalised are being placed in infection control wards. Good supportive health care is all that most people require, with treatment for fever and pains and additional oxygen to make breathing easier. Nurses or doctors caring for them, along with all visitors would wear masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns. This can distress some ill people but it is important to realise that it is just a precaution. Australians being treated overseas would have access to consular assistance and advice from Australian health authorities if required. If you are not sick enough to be in hospital, you may be asked to stay at home for a period of time and avoid contact with others.
Q. If there is another outbreak of SARS, how can I protect myself?
A. If transmission of SARS-CoV recurs, there are some common-sense precautions that you can take that apply to many infectious diseases. The most important is frequent hand washing with soap and water or use of an alcohol-based hand rub. You should also avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unclean hands and encourage people around you to cover their nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
Q. What did the government do to protect Australians from SARS during the global outbreak?
A. Key aspects of the Australian Government Department of Health & Ageing's response included:
- A team of epidemiologists, medical officers and other specialists developed and continue to maintain a system of national and global surveillance for outbreaks of diseases like SARS which can be escalated when required in the department's National Incident Room.
- Coordination with State and Territory Health Departments on advice to hospitals and clinical services to be alert and prepared for SARS patients.
- Liaising with the World Health Organization, other international health authorities and federal inter-departmental agencies about key developments.
- Establishing guidelines for health practitioners and disseminating information about the symptoms and infection control procedures.
Q. What is Australia's travel advice on SARS?
A. There is no current travel advice related to SARS. For updates in the future check the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Smartraveller website: www.smartraveller.gov.au/
Q. Is SARS a quarantinable illness in Australia?