Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by a virus called SARS-associated coronovirus.
The disease first appeared in southern China in late 2002, then spread to 28 other countries, with 774 deaths from more than 8,000 cases. Transmission occurred mainly in hospitals and among families and contacts of hospital workers. As a result of public health measures, SARS outbreaks were able to be controlled. The last reported case of SARS occurred in China in April 2004. It is difficult to predict if a SARS epidemic will recur.
People with SARS develop fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. Symptoms usually begin two to seven days after being exposed to the virus, although it may be up to ten days. Other symptoms can include headache, chills, muscle aches, poor appetite, dizziness, diarrhoea and sore throat. These symptoms are commonly seen with other types of infection and are not specific to SARS.
Some people with SARS develop severe pneumonia and about 20% will require admission to an intensive care unit. Overall, about 10-15% of people diagnosed with SARS have died. Older people and those with chronic disease are at higher risk.
SARS is spread mainly by close person to person contact. The virus is transmitted by someone who is unwell with the illness via infected respiratory droplets produced when coughing or sneezing. Droplets are propelled a short distance through the air and land on the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose or eyes of a nearby person. The virus can also spread from a person’s hands after touching a contaminated surface and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
If a SARS epidemic recurs and you have travelled to a SARS-affected area in the last ten days and developed fever, cough or shortness of breath, you should seek urgent medical assessment. As SARS is infectious, always phone the health facility and advise of possible SARS contact before attending.
There is no specific treatment for SARS. Severe cases need hospitalisation for general supportive healthcare.
Special precautions are needed for people who are suspected of having SARS and their carers. People may be isolated in hospital or in their home. Staff caring for them, along with any visitors, need to wear masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns to prevent the infection being spread. It is very important for the sick person and all people in contact with them to wash their hands frequently.
Doctors, hospitals and laboratories must report cases of suspected or confirmed SARS to public health authorities. Infected people will be isolated and people who have been in contact with them identified, counselled and monitored for illness.
There is no vaccine against SARS. Should a SARS epidemic recur, there are simple things you can do to prevent the spread of infections like SARS. To decrease your risk of acquiring infections you should:
- wash your hands often with soap and running water for at least ten seconds, particularly after using the toilet, after blowing your nose or sneezing, before handling/preparing food, after being out in public and before touching other people (eg. shaking hands)
- cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough
- try to avoid coming into contact with people who are coughing or sneezing
- stay at home if you are sick.
Australian Department of Health and Ageing. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) frequently asked questions (last updated 13/08/10) (accessed 18/10/10)
Heymann D (Ed). 2008. Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, 19th edition. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.
McIntosh K (2010). Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). (accessed 9/08/10)
For more information, contact your local public health unit.
Last updated: 4 March, 2011