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Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

4-minute read

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a disease that can cause severe pneumonia. An outbreak of SARS spread from China to several other countries in 2002-2003. There have been no outbreaks since, but there is still a risk that one will happen in the future.

What is severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is an illness caused by the SARS associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Coronaviruses are found in many different species, including birds and mammals, and include the virus that causes the common cold. The virus that causes SARS had never been seen in humans before. 

The first outbreak of SARS began in China and spread to 30 other countries including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Canada and Singapore. The World Health Organization coordinated an international campaign to diagnose, track and contain the disease. It was successfully contained a few months later, after 8,400 cases and about 900 deaths. 

About 1 in 10 infected people died in the 2002-2003 outbreak, mainly those aged over 60. About 1 in 5 people who were infected were healthcare workers. There was only one case of SARS in Australia, in someone who became infected in her home country and visited New South Wales.

How is SARS spread?

The SARS outbreak is thought to have started when the virus spread from an animal to a human, most likely from an infected civet (a small, cat-like animal). It then spread from person to person via contaminated droplets which became airborne due to coughing or sneezing. The virus can also be spread if you have direct contact with a person’s contaminated hands. However, it is thought you need to have close contact with an infected person to catch the disease.

Symptoms of SARS 

People with SARS first develop a fever (over 38°C) followed by a cough, pneumonia, or breathing difficulties. Other symptoms of SARS include:

These common symptoms could have many causes. They are only likely to be due to SARS if you have been in close contact with someone who has the disease, or if you have travelled to a country where there is an outbreak. Symptoms usually develop 2 to 7 days after you are exposed to the virus, although sometimes they can take as long as 10 days to appear.

Diagnosis of SARS

Several laboratory tests can be used to diagnose SARS. If you have symptoms and think you could have been in contact with someone who has the disease, your doctor will take swabs from your nose and throat as well as a blood test. They might also order an x-rays of your chest to see if you have pneumonia.

Treatment for SARS

There is no cure for SARS. If you develop severe pneumonia, you might need to go to hospital and have artificial ventilation in an intensive care unit.

Preventing a SARS outbreak

There is no vaccine against SARS. If you think you may have the disease, it is important to tell your doctor right away so you can be isolated to ensure you don’t infect other people.

A new SARS outbreak would involve an international public health response to control infection and protect healthcare workers.

If there were to be a new outbreak, there are things you can do to protect yourself:

  • wash your hands often with soap and running water, especially after blowing your nose or sneezing, after going to the toilet, and before preparing food or touching other people
  • cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • use a surgical mask around people who are coughing or sneezing and keep your distance
  • use a tissue to blow your nose and dispose of it straight away
  • stay at home if you are sick

Last reviewed: August 2018

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