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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)

Definition

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness caused by a virus called SARS-associated coronavirus. This disease was first reported in China in November of 2002 and subsequently spread to more than two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia over just a few months. More than 8,000 people became sick from SARS during the 2003 outbreak. Of these, 774 died. Only eight people in the United States were confirmed to have the virus but all of these infected individuals had traveled outside the country to locations infected with SARS. The disease did not spread any further in the United States.

SARS is reportable to the Iowa Department of Public Health by Iowa Administrative Code 641 IAC 1.

Symptoms

Initial symptoms of SARS will begin within 10 days of infection and usually include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Malaise
  • Body aches

Between two to seven days after initial symptoms, infected individuals may develop a dry cough and have difficulty breathing. These symptoms frequently progress to pneumonia.

Causes

SARS is caused by a virus called SARS-associated coronavirus, which was previously unidentified prior to the 2003 outbreak in Asia. The disease is spread primarily by close person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Particles in the air can also be infected making it possible to become infected even after the person who coughed or sneezed has left the room.

Other ways to become infected include:

  • touching a surface or object contaminated by infectious droplets and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes
  • kissing or hugging an infected individual
  • sharing eating or drinking utensils with an infected individual

Transmission

Travelers to areas infected with SARS and people who have had potential exposure or are caring for someone infected with SARS are at increased risk of become infected. Persons with SARS are most likely to be contagious when they are showing symptoms, such as fever or cough. Infected individuals are most contagious during their second week of illness and are no longer considered contagious 21 days after infection.

Prevention

People traveling to areas infected with SARS should avoid close contact with infected individuals and should consider postponing their trip if there are reports of SARS in the area. In addition, travelers should observe precautions to safeguard their health such as frequent hand washing. If you develop symptoms of SARS after traveling to a SARS-infected area, do not go to a clinic or hospital without phoning first so that proper isolation precautions can be immediately taken to prevent spread of the disease.

People caring for individuals infected with SARS should observe the following precautions:

  • Be sure that all members of the household are washing their hands frequently with soap and warm water or using an alcohol-based hand wash
  • Wear disposable gloves if you have direct contact with body fluids of a SARS patient and wash your hands after contact with the patient
  • Wear a surgical mask when you have close contact with the patient
  • Do not share silverware, towels, bedding or other items that have been used by the patient
  • Clean surfaces such as counters and door knobs with a household disinfectant and wear disposable gloves during cleaning
  • Follow these instructions for 10 days after the patient’s fever and respiratory symptoms have gone away

People suffering from SARS should observe the following precautions:

  • Do not go to work, school or public areas
  • Wash your hands often and well, especially after blowing your nose
  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough
  • If possible, wear a surgical mask when around other people in your home
  • Do not share silverware, towels, bedding or other items with other people in your home
  • Follow these instructions for 10 days after your fever and respiratory symptoms have gone away

Treatment

Treatment for SARS often requires hospitalization, especially if breathing problems occur. Patients are placed in isolation to prevent spread of the disease. Many different medications are used to alleviate patients’ symptoms, but there is no cure for SARS. Medications may include corticosteroids and antiviral drugs.

If you develop symptoms of SARS, especially after traveling to a SARS-infected area or caring for a person infected with SARS, you should seek treatment from your healthcare provider immediately. However, do NOT go to a clinic or hospital without phoning first so that proper isolation precautions can be immediately taken to prevent spread of the disease.

Additional Resources

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