HealthLinkBC File #89, August 2003
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
- What is SARS?
- What are the symptoms?
- How is it spread?
- How do you avoid getting the disease?
- Why are people quarantined for SARS?
- What is the treatment?
- Is there a vaccine?
- Should I be concerned about SARS while travelling?
- How is B.C. protecting health-care workers from the risk of SARS?
- Sources for more information
What is SARS?
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is an illness characterized by fever, cough and severe pneumonia. Current evidence points to a new strain of the human coronavirus as the cause. Normally, coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold.
For a positive diagnosis of SARS, a person must have symptoms including a fever over 38°C AND have travelled within the past 10 days to a SARS-affected area OR have had contact with a SARS case within the past 10 days. Investigational lab tests may soon be in use to "confirm" cases.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptoms include fever, dry cough, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties. Associated symptoms can include headache, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue and diarrhea. In some patients, their respiratory symptoms become more severe over the course of about a week and they require oxygen support and sometimes mechanical breathing or a "breathing machine."
Symptoms generally appear 2 to 10 days after exposure, most commonly within 3 to 5 days.
SARS is spread by close contact with an ill person, the same way a cold is spread. Close contact means having cared for, lived with or had face-to-face (within one metre) or direct contact with a person with SARS or fluids from his/her nose, mouth or throat or other body fluids.
Lung infections are usually caused by virus or bacteria spread from person to person through contact with fluid from the nose, mouth and throat. This may occur through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes near another person. They may also be spread through saliva, usually by kissing or sharing food, beverages, cigarettes or other things that touched an infected person's mouth. Shaking hands or contact with tissues, toys or other articles in recent contact with fluid from the nose, mouth or eyes of an infected person can also spread infections.
How do you avoid getting the disease?
You can protect yourself from SARS the same way you protect yourself from the common cold - with good hygiene practices.
Good hygiene minimizes the spread of any communicable disease. This includes:
- frequent hand-washing - use plain soap and warm water for at least twenty seconds, or waterless hand rinses (alcohol-based);
- proper disposal of used tissues or other articles that come in contact with fluid from the nose, mouth or eyes; and
- avoiding close contact with ill persons, including face-to-face or with fluid from mouth, nose or eyes.
Hand-washing is the single most important procedure for preventing infections.
Why are people quarantined for SARS?
Quarantine and isolation are essential measures to contain the spread of SARS.
Public health officials have authority to control any infectious disease outbreak posing a threat to public health under B.C.'s Health Act. They will require anyone suspected of having SARS or contact with a SARS case to isolate or quarantine themselves at home. If an individual does not comply, a Medical Health Officer can obtain a court order for quarantine. They can also require testing and treatment if individuals refuse to do so and are therefore placing others at risk of illness.
What is the treatment?
Patients who do not have a severe case of SARS can stay home and recover on their own much like they would with a cold or the flu.
A small number of patients, who develop progressive pneumonia, do require treatment in hospital. This usually involves fluids and oxygen, anti-viral drugs and in some cases a respirator.
In all cases, isolation and infection control procedures remain very important to prevent the spread of SARS to others.
Is there a vaccine?
There currently is no vaccine for SARS, as it is a newly emerged illness in humans. However, the government of B.C. has provided funding to initiate an accelerated vaccine development project and a national research collaboration is now underway. Researchers are optimistic they may develop a vaccine in half the time it normally takes for such a project.
Should I be concerned about SARS when traveling?
You should check with Health Canada to find out if there are any SARS-related travel advisories currently in effect. Call 1-800-O-CANADA or visit Health Canada's Web site at www.hc-sc.gc.ca.
British Columbians traveling to exotic locations should discuss any local hazards and vaccine requirements with their doctor.
It is a sensible precaution to minimize your own direct or close face-to-face contact with anyone who is ill, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching objects such as used tissues that come into contact with fluid from the nose, eyes or mouth of an ill person. These proper hygiene practices help prevent the spread of any infection.
How is B.C. protecting health-care workers from the risk of SARS?
As a result of the SARS experience, all acute care facilities have been directed to operate with heightened surveillance to ensure no cases of SARS are missed.
The worldwide 2003 SARS outbreak demonstrated the importance of proper infection control procedures at all times. Air-borne and contact precautions are now being used routinely with any patient with respiratory symptoms. Frequent and careful hand-washing is a must.
Sources for More Information:
Ministry of Health Services
BC Centre for Disease Control
Or, contact your local health authority, family doctor or public health department.
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