Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) (cont.)

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What is severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)?

SARS is an infectious respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus. The first cases of SARS occurred in late 2002 in the Guangdong Province of the People's Republic of China. Because of the contagious nature of the disease and the delayed public-health response, the epidemic spread rapidly around the globe. Final statistics from the World Health Organization showed 8,096 reported illnesses and 774 deaths.

The rapid transmission and high mortality rate (about 10%) of SARS drew international attention and concern. Fortunately, efforts to identify and quarantine infected people proved highly effective. By July 2003, sustained human-to-human transmission of SARS had been eliminated. This was a public-health triumph that is often underappreciated. Although illnesses such as anthrax, bird flu, or West Nile virus are potential threats, SARS was a very real problem. Unfortunately, future outbreaks of SARS are still possible because the virus lives in some wild bats and civets in China and also exists in laboratory cultures. In fact, there were a few human cases of SARS in 2004 as a result of laboratory accidents in the People's Republic of China. No human cases have been identified since.

The previously unknown coronavirus that causes this syndrome was first identified in Asia in early 2003, hence its name, "SARS-associated coronavirus" or SARS-CoV. As of October 2012, SARS-CoV has been added to the National Select Agent Registry, which regulates the handling and possession of bacteria, viruses, or toxins that have potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. The addition of SARS-CoV permits maintenance of a national database and inspection of entities that possess, use, or transfer SARS-CoV; it also ensures that all individuals who work with these agents undergo security-risk assessment performed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation/Criminal Justice Information Service.

Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) is a new coronavirus in humans that has been identified in an outbreak in residents and travelers to the Arabian peninsula this year. It is not the same coronavirus as SARS-CoV, but it is similar to bat coronaviruses, and it is likely to have originated in animals as well. MERS-CoV is discussed separately in another article.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/1/2013

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