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SARS virus under microscope

 SARS Emerges as New Public Health Threat

Within a few short months, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has erupted into a global public health crisis. It was only March 12 when the World Health Organization (WHO) first issued a global health alert about a mysterious pneumonia-like illness spreading throughout parts of Asia. Since then, the deadly disease has forced government officials worldwide to close schools, restrict travel, and quarantine thousands. Daily news reports chart the spread of the disease as people in China and Hong Kong wear surgical masks in an effort to protect themselves from the illness. On May 14, Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS ’73, dean of the School, convened a conference at the School to examine the SARS epidemic.

Information for Travelers

If you are traveling out of the country, make sure you are prepared and up-to-date on the SARS and health warnings. Here are some agencies and organizations you may contact before traveling.

United States Department of State
The U.S. State Department provides warnings, information, and advisories for citizens traveling abroad. Information is available online at travel.state.gov.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The latest information on disease outbreaks and health warnings worldwide is available from the CDC at www.cdc.gov/travel.

Johns Hopkins International Travel Clinic
For anyone traveling to a less developed part of the world, be certain to contact your health care provider. The Johns Hopkins International Travel Clinic also provides information about recommended immunizations and other matters to guard your health. You can contact the clinic at 410-955-8931.

Office of International Student, Faculty, and Staff Services
It is imperative that our international students, faculty, and staff contact the Office of International Student, Faculty and Staff Services before undertaking any international travel. The number is 410-955-3371.

At press time, the disease had infected over 5,000 people in 28 countries, including the United States. One suspected case of SARS was treated at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.  The number of SARS deaths remained low with most occurring in Hong Kong and China’s Guangdong Province, where the disease first emerged. A number of deaths were also reported in Toronto, Canada, which forced the WHO to issue a travel warning for the city in late April. Earlier that month, the spread of SARS prompted Dean Sommer to issue a travel advisory recommending that students and faculty traveling to affected areas postpone their trips if at all possible. Additionally, Johns Hopkins University decided to dismiss its joint graduate studies program in Nanjing, China, six weeks early.

Scientists from the WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have identified a previously unknown coronavirus as the cause of SARS. In a 1998 article for the American Society of Microbiology, Donald Burke, MD, professor in International Health and Epidemiology, predicted that coronavirus was among the most likely candidates for newly infectious diseases. He believes that health officials may have a six-month window of opportunity to eradicate SARS altogether, especially if the disease proves to be seasonal and rates decline in the summer. Otherwise, the disease could return in the winter even stronger than before.

“History teaches us that the devastating 1918 influenza epidemic began with a modest ‘herald wave’ in spring that faded away during the summer, only to explode and wreck global devastation the following fall and winter,” wrote Dr. Burke in an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal. “It is possible that SARS, now seeded around the globe, could follow a similar pattern and fade away this summer, only to erupt again next winter. The coming summer lull in SARS affords an extraordinary opportunity. If we can detect, diagnose, and effectively isolate every contagious case during the period when the infection rate is at its lowest, it is possible that we can truly eradicate SARS, not just for the short term, but permanently,” said Dr. Burke.

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