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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Why Does SARS Matter?

Experts Say SARS Reveals the Vulnerability of Global Health
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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 the cracks."

"Just a single person can set off a cascade of transmission with very serious consequences for the community," says Gerberding.

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