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SARS Fears Growing in U.S.

4 in 10 Americans Worried About SARS

WebMD Health News

April 25, 2003 -- As the number of SARS cases continues to grow, more Americans are expressing concern about a disease that has affected more than 4,649 people worldwide and killed 274 since it first emerged in China only six months ago. A new poll shows four in 10 Americans are now worried about exposure to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), a jump of more than a third from a similar poll taken only last week.

Recent travel advisories are also causing many Americans to rethink their travel plans. Researchers found 14% of air travelers have changed their minds about traveling because of SARS worries.

This week, the World Health Organization expanded its SARS travel advisory to include Toronto, Beijing, and the Shanxi Province in China. A previous travel advisory issued on April 2 warned against travel to Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong Province in China.

The poll, conducted April 22-23, found 43% of Americans are either "very" or "somewhat" worried about SARS exposure, but only 32% felt the same way last week.

Researchers say women tend to be more worried than men and the gender gap is increasing. This week, 49% of women said they were very or somewhat afraid, up 15% from last week. Meanwhile 37% of men said they were worried right now, compared with 29% who expressed concerns last week.

Although the majority probable SARS cases in the U.S. has been reported in regions where many people travel back and forth to Asia, such as the West Coast and New York, the poll found Southerners and Midwesterners appear to be the most worried about SARS.

In fact, the biggest increase in concern was found in the Midwest, where 46% said they were worried in this week's poll, up from 26% last week. That increase might reflect growing concerns about travel to Toronto, which has been the epicenter of the Canadian SARS outbreak that has affected 140 people and caused 15 deaths.

The CDC says it is currently investigating 247 suspected SARS cases, of which 39 are considered probable SARS cases. No SARS deaths have been reported in the U.S.

Is the SARS Virus Mutating?

Experts say coronaviruses, such as the virus that causes SARS, are single-stranded RNA viruses that are known for their propensity to change and evolve. Some researchers have suggested that the SARS virus may be mutating and forming more virulent strains, which might explain why some people with SARS develop a potentially deadly illness and others recover.

If the virus is indeed changing and mutating, it would make efforts to develop a vaccine or other treatments for SARS much more difficult.

"If we are going to use a vaccine or antiviral strategy for SARS, it is important to know about these genetic changes and what they mean in terms of biological significance," says Albert D.M.E. Osterhaus, DVM, PhD, a professor at the Institute of Virology at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

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