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The SARS Outbreak: 100 Days Later

Worst of the SARS Outbreak Is over, But What's Next?
By
WebMD Health News

June 19, 2003 -- One hundred days after the World Health Organization (WHO) first alerted the world about a mysterious outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness, more than 8,400 people have been stricken with the disease, now known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and 800 victims have died. That's the bad news. But health officials say the good news is that the worst of the SARS outbreak is over, and valuable lessons are emerging that will allow them to better prepare for the next global disease threat.

"SARS has changed the perception of the infectious disease threat," said WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland, MD, in addressing the first WHO Global Conference on SARS held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, this week. "As a highly publicized, visible, and greatly feared disease, SARS has stimulated an emergency response on a scale that has changed public and political perceptions of the risk posed by all emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases."

Within a month after the WHO issued its first health alert on March 12, which described 55 cases of SARS concentrated in Hong Kong; Singapore; and Hanoi, Vietnam, the SARS outbreak exploded internationally and grew to more than 3,000 cases and more than 100 deaths in 20 countries on five continents. Since then, the SARS outbreak peaked in early May, when more than 200 new cases were being reported daily, and now seems to be dwindling, with only a handful of cases reported each day for the last several days.

A Global Effort

Officials at the conference say the dramatic reduction in SARS cases was the result of a monumental effort and cooperation of governments, health-care staff, and the public.

In fact, SARS' brief history as the first easily transmissible new disease to strike a globalized society reveals both old-fashioned vulnerability and modern scientific achievement made possible by international travel and cooperation:

  • Late November 2002 --The first cases of unusual pneumonia (now known to be SARS) are reported in the Guangdong province of southern China.
  • Late February 2003 -- A doctor who treated SARS patients in Guangdong spends one night in a Hong Kong hotel and infects at least 16 other persons staying or visiting persons on the same floor.
  • March 12, 2003 -- The WHO issues the first global health alert on the SARS threat.
  • April 16, 2003 -- A team of international researchers confirms a previously unknown form of a coronavirus as the cause of SARS.

"Despite the speed at which SARS spread, when we look back on the past 100 days and track key events in the international response, it is the speed and sweep of our achievements that is truly remarkable," said Brundtland.

3 Critical Steps in Containing SARS Remain

But there is still a lot of work ahead for researchers before they can say the threat of SARS is over.

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