You may remember the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, when nearly 5,000 people had to be quarantined in Canada in order to contain the epidemic. The virus emerged in China in 2002 and killed about one out of every ten individuals affected.
A new virus from the SARS family was recently identified in London, but thankfully does not seem to spread easily among humans, quelling the fears of another possible epidemic. Health officials will nevertheless keep an eye on this virus to make sure it doesn’t spread faster than anticipated.
SARS is a type of lung infection caused by a very contagious type of virus. It typically manifests with the sudden onset of fever above 38 °C, along with one or several severe acute respiratory symptoms such as severe cough, breathlessness at rest, and difficulty breathing. After two to seven days, patients may present with a dry, non-productive cough that may be associated with progressively lower levels of oxygen in the blood. Most patients develop pneumonia, and 10 to 20 percent of patients must be put on a ventilator.
As with colds and the flu, SARS is transmitted through close contact with an infected individual. When this person coughs or sneezes, the virus spreads through the air and people within a radius of about a metre can then inhale it or get it lodged in the membranes of their nose, eyes or mouth. The virus may also be transmitted when touching a contaminated surface or object and then touching our nose, eyes or mouth.
How can we prevent respiratory tract infections such as SARS, the flu or colds? The most important thing is to wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water, or with an alcohol gel. As the weather gets colder, it’s important to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if you haven’t just washed your hands. It’s also a good idea to encourage your loved ones to use a clean tissue to cover their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze, and to then immediately throw the tissue into the garbage. Lastly, it is recommended that you get the flu vaccine every year, whether you’re sick or healthy.