SARS Spread in Florida Raises Concerns
One Month into SARS Outbreak, Officials Still Learning
April 11, 2003 -- One month ago, only a handle of health officials had heard of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness known as SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome). But since the World Health Organization (WHO) issued its first alert about SARS on March 12, the disease has been linked to 116 deaths and is believed to have infected nearly 3,000 people in 17 countries.
In that short time, officials have also zeroed in on the likely cause of SARS (a previously unknown form of the coronavirus), issued strict travel restrictions and quarantines to contain the spread of the disease, and developed at least three potential tests to screen for the disease.
Despite the unprecedented speed of both the containment and spread of SARS and researchers' success in identifying its cause, officials still say there are many lessons to be learned from the outbreak. And they are still learning as the outbreak progresses.
WHO director David L. Heyman, MD, says SARS is the first severe and easily transmissible new disease to emerge in the 21st century.
"Though much about the disease remains poorly understood, including the exact identity of the causative virus, we do know that it has features that allow it to spread rapidly along international air travel routes," says Heyman, in a news release.
In fact, Hong Kong health officials reported yesterday that they treated a man infected with SARS who flew to seven countries before seeking care in Hong Kong. It is not yet clear whether the man infected any fellow travelers.
And in Florida, CDC officials say they are very concerned about reports of suspected SARS cases that may be first instances of transmission of the illness via exposure in the workplace or at school.
"One situation, in particular, involved a person who traveled to Asia and developed an illness consistent with SARS," says CDC director Julie Gerberding, MD. "In the very early phases of that illness, the individual did go to work, and during the active monitoring of contacts that the Florida health department is conducting, an individual in the workplace who has respiratory illness was identified."
"So that worker is now on the list of suspected SARS patients but it's far too early to indicate whether any of these individuals actually has SARS," says Gerberding.
CDC officials say they are most concerned about the potential spread of SARS in people who are not linked to a known case of SARS, which would suggest that the disease poses a threat to the general public.
"When we see an unexplained case popping up in a school or an unexplained case of SARS popping up in a workplace, that's when we become concerned that our containment efforts have failed and that we are not able to contain this from a public health perspective," says Gerberding.