October 21, 2014
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Infection

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SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It is a severe respiratory illness that is caused by a previously unknown type of virus. The SARS virus is a type of virus known as a coronavirus. Coronaviruses normally cause mild-to-moderate upper-respiratory illnesses such as the common cold.

SARS was first seen in Southern China in November 2002. In March 2003, the first Canadian cases were seen in people returning from Hong Kong. According to the World Health Organization, (WHO) during the 2003 outbreak, there were a total of 8098 probable SARS cases globally, including 774 deaths. Canada saw 438 probable SARS cases, with 44 deaths. Although the majority of cases were in Ontario, cases were also reported in British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan. All deaths reported from SARS in Canada were in Toronto.

The main symptoms of SARS include fever (>38°C) and respiratory symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, or difficulty breathing. Other symptoms can include muscle ache, headache, sore throat, and diarrhea. Fever is usually the first symptom to appear. About 3 to 7 days later, a dry cough may appear. About 80% to 90% of infected people start to recover after 6 to 7 days. However, 10% to 20% of people with SARS go on to develop very severe breathing problems and may need the help of a machine to breathe.

If you think you may have SARS, see a doctor as soon as possible. For more information, call Health Canada's SARS information line at 1-800-454-8302.

SARS is spread through aerosolized (exhaled) droplets and body secretions from an infected person. You can come into contact with these droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Close contact increases the risk of spreading the virus and can include living in the same household, caring for an infected person, or having direct contact with infected bodily fluids and secretions. Another risk factor is travel to an area where SARS is spreading locally.

Home isolation or quarantine generally starts after exposure to SARS and continues for 10 days even if there are no symptoms present. Isolation or quarantine will limit further exposure and help to control the spread of the virus. If no symptoms develop by the end of the 10-day period, the quarantine can end. There are a few things that you can do if you are in isolation or quarantine:

  • Remain at home.
  • Wear and change your mask as directed.
  • Do not share personal items.
  • Do not have any visitors at home.
  • Use proper hand-washing techniques.
  • Sleep in separate bedrooms.
  • Regularly monitor your health (temperature, coughing, etc.).

Generally, other family or household members are not quarantined and do not need to wear a mask. People who develop symptoms should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

People with SARS require treatment in a hospital and will generally begin treatment based on their symptoms, before the cause of the illness has been confirmed. People who are suspected of having SARS are placed in isolation to protect other patients and health care workers. There is no cure for SARS, and there is no vaccine available to protect against the illness, but research is ongoing. However, SARS can be treated with antiviral medications and supportive therapy (e.g., medications to relieve symptoms and machines to help a person breathe).

Prevention may be the most effective means of treating SARS. Avoiding close contact with an infected person and regular and thorough hand-washing are two very important measures that can help prevent the spread of SARS.

Health Canada is no longer recommending SARS-related travel restrictions. However, it is always wise to visit your doctor or travel medicine clinic before traveling outside of Canada to assess the risks involved. You should always monitor your own health and report any signs of illness. Quarantine officers are present at many of Canada's major international airports (Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa) and are equipped with up-to-date information on worldwide SARS information.

Health Canada continues to remain vigilant in protecting Canada against SARS. According to the Health Canada website, it is maintaining activity in key areas such as surveillance, research, laboratory diagnosis, public health and hospital infection control, travel and emergency response, and communications and public awareness.


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