SARS Lessons Unlearned
Will SARS hit hard again this year or in the future? Experts go over what happened and what may be next.
An Incomplete Shield
Just in case, the WHO is supporting research on a SARS vaccine.
StÃ¶hr says the goal is to have a vaccine ready for testing in three years. But
Koplan points out that even if such a vaccine works, the clinical testing
process itself takes years.
And while doctors got a lot better at treating SARS, there's
still no specific treatment for the illness -- and no drug that's proven to
kill the SARS bug.
Low, for one, isn't worried that SARS will make a comeback.
"We have put this genie back in the bottle," he
But since SARS, public health officials everywhere are sleeping
with one eye open.
"I think what we've experienced has definitely been a
wake-up call with regards to the importance of being prepared for the
introduction of new diseases: SARS and what the future will bring," Low
says. "That was an incredible learning experience with a steep learning
Canada, he says, has learned its lesson the hard way.
"One of the things SARS has done for us in Ontario and
Toronto and spilled over into all of Canada is a recognition of the situation
we have put public health in," Low says. "We have decimated public
health and not let it grow at the rate science is growing. We live in such a
global village. We have to be prepared today. Public health is absolutely
essential for infection control. I think we will benefit greatly from this.
Hopefully the U.S. will be able to take our example and use that as an argument
as to why you have to support public health in the future."
Former CDC director Koplan says he hopes so, too. But he hasn't
seen it yet.
"I don't see progress at this point," he says.
"With 20% of the population uninsured or underinsured and lacking access to
health care, the best bet is they will have to go to work and spread whatever
disease they have without being diagnosed. Until we have adequate support for
hospital care in public hospitals, they will be overcrowded and
In particular, Koplan says, public hospitals lack enough
equipment, staff, and surge capacity to deal with even a moderate public-health
emergency. The line separating us from disaster, he says, is thin indeed.
"Our public health system is what stands between us and
much greater illness and death rates," Koplan says. "We saw it with
SARS. We see it this year with flu. And we will see it again. Just as
after a crime wave people are quick to support the police, and after a bad
performance by kids on standardized tests we want to support schools, after
SARS we see that we really need to support our public health departments. They
are the ones that give us a much better shot at surviving the next