Eradicating an Effective Killer

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Leah Olson, Undergraduate in Microbiology

Every day, doctors go about their jobs performing surgeries, saving lives, and even fixing “boo boos.” We trust them to know how to help us in our times of need, which usually they do, but in March 2003, something else happened. At this time, a Chinese-American businessman came to a hospital in Vietnam with severe flu-like symptoms. Dr. Carlo Urbani reported the disease as “atypical pneumonia.” He tried everything his schooling had taught him, but nothing worked on this man. The businessman died very quickly. His death was followed by Dr. Urbani himself on March 29. Other similar cases – new and old – were identified. From November 2002 to July 2003, 8096 cases and 774 deaths happened in 29 countries.

This new killing disease was determined to be caused by a virus and called severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) because the disease results in quick deterioration of health and respiratory failure. The first cases of SARS were believed to originate in Guandong in China. The outbreak was not immediately publicized, but in February 2003, 305 cases and 5 deaths were reported making it hard to hide. Because of the long incubation period of SARS, 10 days, people carrying SARS traveled out of China and to Canada, Vietnam and Singapore taking the disease with them.

Laboratories began combining their efforts to determine more information about SARS and more possibilities on treating it. After sequencing the 29,727-base-long strand of RNA, SARS was determined to be a coronavirus. The influenza virus is also in this family.

Because the disease was rapidly spreading, antivirals were ineffective. Since no vaccine was available, the World Health Organization issued a global warning. Clinical signs, symptoms, and case definitions were provided. Notification of any cases of atypical pneumonia became mandatory in most countries. All cases were reviewed and possible causes of each were researched. This helped determine the index cases in Guandong. Homes of people in close contact with SARS were quarantined, and some hospitals were completely sealed off for SARS patients. Some countries started with just having special areas in hospitals for infected individuals, but the disease was commonly transmitted nosocomially, so whole hospitals became designated for victims. Because our world is so closely connected now with technology and travel, travelers were screened and asked to submit cards verifying their good health.

SARS was a new, very infectious disease, but it wasn’t medicine or vaccine development that saved the public from a global epidemic. It was the preventative measures, the quarantines, and the vigilance of health departments in screening that controlled the outbreak. Many more individuals could have died if people were forced to wait around for a cure. Although there was a resurgence of SARS in Toronto in May 2003 due to down-regulation of barrier precautions and restrictions, protective measures were quickly reinstated, and the disease was brought under control once more.

People no longer live in fear of SARS because of the efforts of WHO and other health organizations. But should people really feel so secure? Chinese bats have now been discovered as a source of
SARS virus, and bat-to-human transmission has been deemed plausible. The SARS virus of 2003 was contained in about eight months. If bats began transmitting the newer SARS to humans, how many people could die before the restrictions were in place again? How many people would die before we regained control? Questions like these inspire virus hunters. And its questions like these that should
inspire increased funding for the study of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.

This entry is part of the fall MICR 354 scientific writing students' blog series.

SARS Image: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy.