30 April 2003
As of mid-April, the World Health Organization (WHO) had recorded more than 3000 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), including 120 deaths.
SARS-affected areas declared by the WHO include regions of China such as Guangdong Province (where the outbreak is believed to have started in November 2002), Beijing, Shanxi Province, Hong Kong and Taiwan Province, Toronto (in Canada), Singapore and Hanoi (in Vietnam).
A SARS-affected area is one where a chain of local transmission has occurred, that is, the disease has been transmitted to uninfected people, as opposed to other countries where reported cases are only those that have been imported, that is, involve infection in people who have recently returned from a SARS-affected area.
Health authorities in Australia notified the WHO of its first suspected case of SARS at the beginning of April, even though the affected person had recovered and was discharged from hospital in February, with no evidence of the infection having spread to any other people.
Suspected cases in Australia continue to be investigated and to date only involve imported cases.
The main symptoms of SARS are:
A chest X-ray will often show signs of pneumonia. SARS may also cause other symptoms such as headache, muscle stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash and diarrhoea.
SARS is described as less contagious than flu. To date the illness has been most likely to occur in people who have had direct and close contact with someone who has SARS, for example, healthcare workers caring for patients with SARS or close family members of these patients.
The organism that causes the infection has been identified as a new virus within the family of viruses that are responsible for the common cold.
The incubation period of SARS – that is, the time between contact with the infection and the appearance of symptoms – is on average 3 to 5 days. As transmission is most likely to result from direct contact with an infected person, localised spread is the most likely outcome. However, SARS can and has spread relatively quickly to other countries because international flight makes it easy for someone who has contracted the infection to then fly between countries before they are aware that they are ill, that is, before symptoms develop.
As a result the WHO has issued recommendations to national health authorities that involve screening passengers leaving SARS-affected countries, and advising those with symptoms not to continue travelling until any flu-like illness has been treated and has resolved.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) describes the risk of contracting SARS as low. Although it advises that travellers consider deferring any plans to travel to SARS-affected areas (see above).
DFAT advises that anyone who has recently travelled to any of the affected countries, and arrives in Australia with any SARS symptoms will be referred by airline or border authorities to a doctor for examination.
DFAT also advises that travellers to affected countries who become ill may not be allowed by local health authorities to continue travelling until they are well, due to WHO screening recommendations.
Last Reviewed: 30 April 2003