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Health officials around the world are grappling with a rapidly spreading epidemic of a severe respiratory ailment known as SARS. Here's a quick look at who's at risk and other basic questions about the disease.

Q. What is SARS?
A. SARS stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome. It's a new viral infection that doctors still don't know much about.

Q. What are the symptoms of SARS?
A. They are a lot like pneumonia or the flu. People get a very high fever -- at least 100.4 degrees. They also usually have shortness of breath or other problems breathing and a dry cough. Some people get other symptoms, including a headache, stiff or achy muscles, a loss of appetite, fatigue, a rash and diarrhea.

Q. How do you get SARS?
A. It seems that you have to have very close contact with someone who has it. Almost all the people who have gotten SARS have either been hospital workers who cared for sick people or members of a victim's family. Doctors believe that it is spread by tiny droplets that get airborne when someone sneezes or coughs, or by contact with other bodily fluids such as blood. The people who have gotten SARS outside of Asia have all either recently traveled to Asian countries where it is spreading or had close contact with someone who recently returned from there.

Experts don't think it's easy to catch SARS from sitting next to a sick person on a plane, but they are investigating incidents in which the virus spread through a Hong Kong apartment tower.

Q. Where is it spreading the most?

A. The disease has hit hardest in China, especially in Hong Kong and the southern province of Guangdong. The outbreak in Toronto is the largest one outside of China, however it is reasonably well contained within hospitals. A small number of suspect cases does exist in the Vancouver area, however these are not confirmed as SARs and no fatalities have resulted from these BC cases. Worldwide there has also been a number of cases in Hanoi and in Singapore. Updated information about international cases can be found on the World Health Organization Web site at http://www.who.int/csr/sars/en.

Q. Are people in this area at risk?

A. No one can yet predict how the epidemic will unfold in the future, but at this point there seems to be little risk unless you are in contact with people who have traveled to affected areas or have been there yourself. As mentioned, only suspect cases have been found in BC, more specifically in Vancouver, and the necessary precautions have been taken, such as quarantines and the constant disinfection of hospitals and other institutions.

Q. How can I protect myself?

A. The best way is to avoid traveling to places where the disease is most common and avoid close contact with someone who appears to have the disease. Hospital workers who have started wearing masks and gloves have not gotten sick.

Q. Can SARS be treated?

A. Antibiotics don't seem to work, which is usually the case with virus-caused diseases. One antiviral drug known as ribavirin may help, but doctors aren't sure yet.

Q. How dangerous is the disease?

A. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of patients get better on their own in about a week. The other 10 percent to 20 percent get worse, with many ending up in intensive care and requiring mechanical ventilators to help them breathe. About 6 percent die.

Q. Who is most at risk?

A. People over age 40 and those who have other medical problems, such as heart or liver disease, seem to do the worst.

Q. What causes SARS?

A. Scientists discovered that the disease is caused by a previously unknown microbe known as a coronavirus. Coronaviruses usually just cause the common cold, but can cause serious respiratory illnesses in animals.

Q. What is the incubation period?

A. Between two and seven days after exposure, with most people getting symptoms in three to five days.

Q. Where did SARS come from?

A. The disease is believed to have first emerged in Guangdong province in China in November and then spread to Hong Kong and elsewhere.

Q. Should I avoid traveling?

A. The World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending people avoid "nonessential" plans to go to Beijing, Toronto, the Chinese provinces of Shanxi and Guangdong and Hong Kong. However, health officials in Toronto disagree with the WHO advisory, and are advising travelers that the city is perfectly safe.

Q. Could this be bioterrorism?

A. Health officials aren't ruling anything out, but they think this is something that occurred naturally, perhaps when a virus that usually only makes animals sick changed somehow and became able to make people sick.

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