Why Does SARS Matter?
Experts Say SARS Reveals the Vulnerability of Global Health
May 6, 2003 -- Outbreaks of mysterious infectious diseases are
nothing new. In fact, the world has seen one or two new infections each year
for the past decade. So why does the current epidemic of SARS (severe acute
respiratory syndrome) matter?
Experts say SARS not only speaks volumes about the current
state of the science of infectious disease, but it also serves as a wake-up
call about the increasing vulnerability of global public health.
"SARS is not just a blip on the radar screen," says
Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID). "In a very short period of time, it has
emerged as a new infectious disease that has likely jumped from animals --
although we're not 100% sure about that yet -- and it became a global public
health threat in a matter of weeks."
Fauci says people speak of globalism in political and economic
terms, but SARS is an example of the globalism of health in the extreme.
"Within the hours of an airplane ride, a disease can become global,"
Fauci tells WebMD.
He says SARS reminds us that the threat of emerging and
reemerging infectious diseases is always present.
Although some recent disease outbreaks, such as the hantavirus
and Legionnaire's disease epidemics of the late 20th century, later
turned out to be relatively minor in scope and were quickly contained, Fauci
says SARS is likely here to stay.
SARS Threat May Never Be Completely Over
Through a combination of sheer luck, advance warning, and good
infection control practices, both Fauci and CDC director Julie Gerberding, MD,
acknowledge the U.S. has thus far been spared from the worst of SARS. The
country has not yet experienced widespread transmission of the disease or had
any SARS-related deaths.
"I would reframe luck as good fortune in this case,"
says Gerberding. "And for us, good fortune in this case comes in the form
of a prepared public health and clinical community. But to some extent, we have
been fortunate that a particularly contagious patient has not slipped through
"Just a single person can set off a cascade of transmission
with very serious consequences for the community," says Gerberding.
Gerberding points to the example of Taiwan, where a single
SARS-infected traveler is thought to have infected a large number of close
contacts and healthcare workers and spurred the epidemic in that country. The
ripple effects of similarly effective disease transmitters, known as
"superspreaders," continue to be felt in other areas that experienced
clusters of SARS outbreaks, such as Hong Kong and Toronto.
That's why Gerberding says SARS will continue to pose a threat
to the U.S. as long as the disease is being actively transmitted anywhere in