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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)


Disease: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
Category: Infectious diseases
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Disease Definition:

The contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) first appeared in China in November 2002. Carried by unsuspecting travelers, SARS spread worldwide within six weeks. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), 8,000 people were infected with SARS and about 800 of them died during the outbreak.

SARS showed how quickly an infection can spread in a highly mobile and interconnected world. This rapid and unexpected spread of SARS alarmed health officials and the public. However, just months after its emergence, concerted international cooperation allowed health experts to contain SARS. And since 2004, there hasn't been any known transmission of SARS anywhere in the world.

Work Group:

Prepared by: Scientific Section

Symptoms, Causes


Two to seven days after a person has been infected, SARS begins with a fever, but this fever may not occur for up to 10 days. Some of the initial signs and symptoms of SARS may be:


  • Fever, 38 C (100.4 F) or higher
  • General feeling of discomfort
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Muscle soreness

The infected person will probably develop a dry cough in two to seven days after the initial signs and symptoms. SARS could progress to severe pneumonia in some cases, leading to hypoxemia, a condition in which there's an insufficient amount of oxygen in the blood.

When someone has active signs and symptoms, they will be most contagious. As a precaution, people who have recovered from SARS should avoid going out in public for at least 10 days after their symptoms subside.

If someone has SARS, they shouldn't spread it to others, because this disease is a serious illness that could cause death. A person should also see a doctor immediately in case they think that they’ve been exposed to or have SARS.


A strain of coronavirus, the same family of viruses that cause the common cold, is the cause of SARS. Even though these viruses can cause severe disease in animals, until lately, they have never been particularly virulent in humans. This is why scientists initially thought that the SARS virus may have crossed to humans from animals. However, it seems that it evolved into a completely new strain from one or more animal viruses.

SARS, just like most respiratory illnesses, spreads through droplets that enter the air when someone with the disease talks, coughs or sneezes. There are two ways in which this type of transmission can occur:

The infected particles are large and can travel only about three feet in droplet transmission. So, the person must be face to face with someone who's sick in order to inhale them.

Airborne particles:
Airborne particles can travel farther and linger longer in the air, because they are much smaller than droplets. This means that even after the person who coughed or sneezed has left the room people can become infected.
Although this virus could be spread on contaminated objects, such as elevator buttons, doorknobs and telephones, most experts think that SARS spreads mainly through face-to-face contact.

People who are at greatest risk of SARS have had direct and close contact with an infected person, such as:


  • A family member or a roommate
  • Doctors and hospital workers. Those who treated SARS were some of the first casualties of this disease before it had been identified.
  • People with a variation in an immune system gene. This could make them much more vulnerable to the SARS virus. Among people of Southeast Asian descent, this genetic variation is quite common, but is rare in other populations. This could explain why most cases of SARS have occurred in Southeast Asia and China.



Heart and liver failure are some of the possible complications of SARS. In some cases, SARS could be fatal due to respiratory failure. About 10 to 20% of people with SARS become progressively worse, develop severe breathing problems, and end up needing the help of a mechanical respirator.


An effective treatment for SARS has not been found yet. However, a combination of antiviral drugs that are used in treating AIDS (lopinavir-ritonavir along with ribavirin) has been shown in clinical studies to prevent serious complications and deaths from SARS. Nevertheless, more testing is still needed.


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