SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

What is SARS?

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is a viral infection which can spread very quickly. SARS was first diagnosed in 2002 in the Guangdong province of China, after which it quickly became a global epidemic as a result of people travelling all over the world. SARS can be life-threatening and between 2002 and 2003 there were more than 8,000 cases of SARS, with more than 700 victims.

What causes SARS?

SARS is caused by the SARS coronavirus (SARS CoV) and affects the upper respiratory tract and infections can spread very quickly. It took experts a relatively long time to pinpoint the cause of SARS but it is now believed that the virus spread to humans when a strain found in animals mutated, allowing it to infect humans. SARS has been identified in a racoon dog, a Chinese ferret badger and Himalayan palm civets.

The conditions spread so quickly in 2002 because of air travel around the world. The epidemic was brought under control after air restrictions were brought in, passengers were screened, infected patients were isolated and people took precautions to protect themselves from infected droplets. Many people in China, for example, wore masks to cover their mouths.

Symptoms of SARS

Symptoms of SARS tend to develop 2-5 days after a person has been infected with the virus. Symptoms of SARS include:

  • Diarrhoea.
  • Fever (high temperature).
  • Headaches.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Pain in the muscles.
  • Chills.
  • Skin irritation.

As the infection progresses, other symptoms may also develop, including:

  • Breathing problems.
  • Breathlessness.
  • A dry cough.
  • Decreased levels of oxygen in the blood, which can be fatal.

How is SARS spread?

SARS is an airborne virus and it is spread in the same way as the common cold. You can become infected if you come into contact with and inhale infected droplets, which are released when somebody coughs or sneezes. SARS can also be spread by coming into contact with surfaces or objects that have been touched by a person with the infection.

Since 2003 there have only been a handful of isolated cases of SARS and the infection is currently under control. However, if you are planning to travel to areas that were badly affected during the 2002-2003 SARS epidemics, it is advisable to check the latest advice from the Foreign Office and the World Health Organisation; you can consult their websites for the latest travel advice.

Treatment for SARS

There is currently no cure for SARS, but scientists are working on a vaccine. Current treatment is predominantly used to ease symptoms and make breathing easier. As SARS is highly contagious, patients with the condition are isolated to prevent the spread of infection. Most people with SARS start to show improvement within 7 days of receiving supportive treatment.

SARS can be very serious so it is important that you seek urgent medical attention if you develop breathing problems with a cough and a high temperature, especially if you are travelling abroad.

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