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Lessons of SARS Outweigh Disease Itself

SARS Outbreak Prepared World for Next Major Threat
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WebMD Health News

Oct. 7, 2003 -- Despite the hype, the lessons of the first SARS outbreak are likely to overshadow the significance of the disease itself, according to a new report.

Researchers say the SARS outbreak probably received more media attention than it warranted compared with other, much more prevalent and potentially dangerous infectious diseases.

But the lessons learned by the health-care community and public worldwide from the rapidly emerging SARS epidemic may prove invaluable in future infectious disease outbreaks.

"Malaria, HIV infection, tuberculosis, and a host of other deadly infections are more devastating than SARS," writes Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, PhD, of the National Institutes of Health. "However, while it's novelty focused disproportionate attention on SARS, the attention has been of incalculable value."

Emanuel's report, along with two other articles on SARS, appears in the Oct. 7 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

As of Sept. 26, the World Health Organization estimates the toll of the first SARS outbreak at 8,098 cases and 774 deaths worldwide.

In contrast, 5 million people became infected with HIV in 2002, and approximately 3.1 million died of AIDS worldwide. Malaria affects more than 400 million across the globe each year and causes about 2 million deaths, and tuberculosis infects about 8 million and kills about 2 million each year.

4 Lessons of SARS

Although SARS affected a relatively small number of people compared with other infectious diseases, Emanuel says the global response to the SARS outbreak provided at least four lessons that will have a long-term impact on health care.

1. The world is better prepared for the next major pandemic. Health officials fear a repeat of the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed between 20 to 40 million worldwide is imminent. By testing the public health system, SARS highlighted gaps in the infrastructure that were addressed by officials.

2. Global cooperation is key. Thanks to worldwide travel, an illness can spread from a small village in rural China within days and weeks. That means global cooperation among both rich and poor countries is necessary to contain worldwide epidemics.

3. Medicine is moral. Despite recent trends toward commercialization and significant risks to their own health, health-care providers cared for sick SARS patients. This is in contrast to 20 years ago when some refused to treat early HIV/AIDS patients.

4. Hospitals should ensure worker's safety. Measures to minimize the risk of infectious disease to health-care workers are effective, and hospitals and administrators should be prepared to implement them

Researchers say these lessons of the SARS outbreak may help focus new worldwide attention on the global threat of both longstanding and emerging infectious disease.

"The novel coronavirus [that causes SARS] is one of the latest in a series of continually emerging pathogens to challenge our global society," writes Richard P. Wessel, MD, MSc, and Michael B. Edmond, MD, MPH, of Virginia Commonwealth University, in an editorial that accompanies the report. "The critical lessons learned from managing the current SARS epidemic should be institutionalized as rational preparations for the next one."

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