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And like a sleeping dragon, it's now nowhere to be found.
Unless, of course, it wakes again. Will it? If anyone would know, that person
would be Jeffrey Koplan, MD, MPH, former CDC director and longtime CDC disease
detective, now vice president for academic health affairs at Emory University
"Unknown," Koplan tells WebMD. "SARS can not come
back; it can come back. Anyone who gives a firm statement of, 'This is what
will happen with SARS,' I don't know where they are getting their
What is known, Koplan says, is that there's more than one
"The best-case scenario is we learn from SARS and prepare
for what is going to be an inevitable return of this virus or something like it
-- or something worse," Koplan says. "The worst case is we say, 'This
isn't coming back,' or say, 'Other things are more urgent.' In that case, we
are no better off than before. Right now, we are closer to nowhere."
This is the story of SARS -- so far. It's about what happened.
It's about what we know and what we don't know. And it's about what, at our
peril, we refuse to learn.
The ancient city of Foshan sits in the Pearl River delta of
southeast China. Foshan is home to some 320,000 people. It's an industrial
city, but its exquisite silks and porcelains -- and its famous Cantonese
cooking -- make it a popular tourist destination.
In November 2002, people in Foshan began coming down with an
unusually severe pneumonia. By January 2003, this pneumonia had spread to the
nearby -- and larger -- city of Guangzhou. But it wasn't until mid-February
that the World Health Organization got its first official report of 305 cases
and five deaths from an unidentified respiratory disease.
By then, SARS had taken flight -- literally. The worldwide
epidemic began when a doctor who had been treating SARS patients flew to Hong
Kong and checked in at the Metropol Hotel. In just a few days, he infected at
least 17 other hotel guests. They carried the disease to Toronto, Vietnam, and
Donald E. Low, MD, chief microbiologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital
in Toronto, was in Hong Kong at that time. His hotel was down the street from
"I flew back the next day, and the SARS patient [who
carried the disease to Canada] was on the same plane the next day," Low
tells WebMD. "In that one day, SARS moved across the globe from Hong Kong
On March 12, 2003, the WHO issued a global SARS alert.
Eventually, SARS spread to 26 countries on five continents. More than 8,000
people fell ill. There were 774 confirmed SARS deaths -- about a 10%