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Sars Virus

Sars Virus

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Published by: Edward McSweegan, PhD on Mar 28, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs


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SARS: Gone But Not Forgotten? Nature is full of surprises. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, plagues, hurricanes,and vast forest fires are just some of the many sources of global surprise. What’s so surprisingabout these chaotic events is that we are always surprised by them. That was the initial responseto the explosive emergence of a new virus in China in late 2002. That surprise quickly gave wayto a world-wide panic, which was subdued by a few cool heads in Switzerland and Canada, andthe fortuitous disappearance of the virus.The new virus was given the seemingly redundant name, SARS, for Severe AcuteRespiratory Syndrome.The SARS virus seems to have emerged in the “wet markets” of Guangdong, China.These markets are part Noah’s Ark, part butcher shop, and the crowded co-mingling of peopleand their soon-to-be-dinner animals probably created ideal opportunities for a virus to jump fromone species to another. A likely candidate for the source of the SARS virus is the civet cat, awild carnivore that looks like a cross between a raccoon and a lemur.Whatever its original source, once the SARS virus made the leap to people it was able tospread with astonishing speed, and alarming lethality. Infected travelers quickly carried the virusto Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, and ocean-spanning jetliners carried it to Canada andEurope. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus reached 5 countries in a24-hour period and 30 others within 6 months.On March 15, 2003, WHO issued a travel advisory to certain countries and cities, anddeclared SARS a “worldwide health threat.” By the time the virus disappeared in July 2003
hundreds of people were dead and tens of billions of dollars had been lost from disrupted tradeand travel.The SARS virus belongs to a family of viruses called the coronaviruses. Two differentcoronaviruses cause colds and mild respiratory illnesses in people. Medical researchers were not particularly interested in coronaviruses—they were boring—so what little we did know aboutthem came from veterinarians. A variety of coronaviruses cause respiratory and gastrointestinaldiseases in cattle, pigs, poultry and dogs. Some of these diseases (infectious bronchitis inchickens and shipping fever pneumonia in cattle) cause serious economic losses in the U.S. butare no threat to people.SARS infections begin with high fevers, headaches and malaise. A dry cough and pneumonia are common. The virus is spread by close person-to-person contact and has anincubation period of 2-7 days. That’s plenty of time to catch it in Hong Kong, get on a plane,and pass it to someone in Toronto. The overall case fatality rate is about 3%, though it is higher among elderly patients. By the end of the SARS outbreak in 2003, 8,098 people worldwide had become sick and 774 had died. In the U.S., eight people showed serological evidence of having been infected, but did not get sick or die.A recent editorial in the science journal,
, declared, “The world dodged a bullet in2003” when SARS appeared. Will we need to dodge another shot from Mother Nature? Is thereany body armor to protect against these viral bullets? No. No yet. But medical scientists are now interested in SARS and coronaviruses, andare working on antiviral drugs and a SARS vaccine.Maybe they’re working too quickly. Last year, scientists in three laboratories inSingapore, Taiwan and China accidentally infected themselves and others while working with

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