Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a life-threatening viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus known as SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). SARS is associated with a flu-likesyndrome, which may progress intopneumonia, respiratory failure, and sometimes death.


The SARS virus is believed to have originated in the Guangdong Province in southern China and has subsequently spread around the world. China and its surrounding countries have witnessed the greatest numbers of SARS-related cases and death. 


SARS was first reported in 2002 in Asia and cases were reported until mid-year 2003. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of July 2003, a total of 8437 people worldwide became ill with SARS and 813 died during the outbreak.


Illness was reported in more than 30 countries and on 5 continents. Only 8 people in the United States acquired SARS infection, and all of these people had traveled outside of the United States. No deaths due to SARS occurred in the United States. 


Because of the rapid and unexpected spread of SARS and because little is known about the virus, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the WHO continue to closely monitor the SARS situation. 


Symptoms of SARS can be similar to those of other viral infections.


The first symptoms begin 2-7 days after exposure and may include the following: 


  • Fever (temperature of more than 100.4°F).
  • Headache.
  • Fatigue (tiredness).
  • Muscle aches and pain.
  • Malaise (a feeling of general discomfort).
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Diarrhea.


Respiratory symptoms develop 3 or more days after exposure.


Respiratory symptoms include the following:


  • Dry cough.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Runny nose and sore throat (uncommon).


By day 7-10 of the illness, almost all patients with laboratory evidence of SARS infection had pneumonia that could be detected on x-ray films.


The SARS virus is spread by close person-to-person contact. Transmission may occur by droplets produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs.


Droplet spread can occur when airborne droplets, produced by a cough orsneeze, are deposited on the mucousmembranes of the mouth, nose, or eyes of a person up to 3 feet away.


The virus can also be spread when a person touches a surface contaminated with the droplets. Oral-fecal transmission of SARS may also occur. Unprotected health care workers were at significant risk of acquiring the infection during the outbreak.


SARS treatment requires hospitalization for intensive supportive care.


This supportive care can include:


  • Intravenous (IV) fluids.
  • Medications, including antibiotics, steroids, and/or antivirals.
  • Breathing support from a ventilator.
  • Prevention of secondary infections.
  • Good nursing care.


Research scientists continue to look for medications to treat the SARS virus; they are also trying to develop a vaccine to prevent SARS.


The Future of SARS Treatment


At this point, intensive and supportive medical care is the primary SARS treatment. However, the SARS virus is being tested against various antiviral drugs to see if an effective SARS treatment can be found. While several compounds have shown antiviral activity, only alpha interferon is suitable for immediate clinical evaluation.


 As more information about the mechanisms of the SARS virus infection are being researched, research scientists are beginning to design drugs specifically aimed at its weak points. One such project is developing an "entry inhibitor" that prevents the SARS virus from infecting human cells.

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