The SARS Epidemic in Perspective

Medical Author: Frederick Hecht, MD
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, PhD and Leslie J. Schoenfield, MD, PhD

June 6, 2003 --The epidemic that has captured far and away the most media attention in 2003 is clearly SARS: severe acute respiratory syndrome. The SARS epidemic is justifiably frightening. But, to put such matters in a public health perspective, where would SARS be on an epidemic scorecard? .

A scorecard, based on data from the World Health Organization in 2003, might read as follows:

  • Tuberculosis: 8 million new cases and 2 million deaths a year. A third of the world population has TB. Drug-resistant incurable strains on the rise.

  • Malaria: 300-500 million new cases and a million deaths a year. Drug-resistant forms are increasing.

  • Hepatitis B: 10-30 million new cases and a million deaths a year from hepatitis B, a leading cause of cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure.

  • Diarrheal diseases: 2.7 billion new cases and 1.9 million deaths, mainly of children, per year from cholera, shigella, typhoid, E. coli, and other agents of diarrhea.

  • HIV/AIDS: 5.5 million new cases of HIV infection and 3.1 million deaths a year from AIDS.

  • Measles: 30 million new cases and nearly 900,000 deaths a year. Measles (also called rubeola) is entirely preventable with a vaccine that costs 26 centsand has been available since 1963.

  • Dengue fever: 20 million new cases and 24,000 deaths a year from this mosquito-borne disease.

  • Influenza: 3-5 million new cases and 250,000 deaths a year.

  • Yellow fever: 200,000 new cases and 30,000 deaths a year.

  • SARS: About 8,000 cases and perhaps 800 deaths from SARS to date this year.