Baffling illness raises worldwide concern

April 07, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

On Tuesday, April 1, an airplane arriving from Japan "was briefly halted" on a runway at the San Jose, Calif., airport, according to the Associated Press.

Members of the flight crew were concerned that a few of the passengers in question might have SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome - the baffling illness that's making headlines.

None of the five passengers in question actually had SARS, but fear that they might was enough to temporarily quarantine the plane.


SARS has affected more than 2,300 people. More than half of the cases have been reported in China, and 49 of the 84 reported deaths also occurred in that vast country of more than 1.3 billion people.

No one has died among the 115 reported instances in the United States, but half a dozen of the 62 reported cases in Canada have resulted in death, according to the World Health Organization.

As of Friday, April 4, there were no travel restrictions directly related to SARS. But a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory recommended that "individuals who are planning nonessential or elective travel to mainland China, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Vietnam, or Singapore, may wish to postpone their trip until further notice," according to the CDC Web site at

That's half a world away, but the same world gets smaller every day with global travel and technology.

So, should Tri-State residents be afraid of SARS?

More than 2,300 reported cases in a world population of 5.9 billion people is not a huge number, but the international health community is vigorously pursuing the solution to the deadly puzzle.

"It is of urgency," says Bernadette Burden, CDC spokeswoman.

The Web sites of the CDC and World Health Organization, at, contain a wealth of information and some recommendations.

Cases of SARS in travelers have been linked to travel in mainland China and Hong Kong, Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam. CDC quarantine officials are distributing health alert cards to air passengers returning from those locations.

The cards advise people to monitor their own health for 10 days after their return. They should consult a health-care provider if they develop a fever higher than 100.4 degrees accompanied by a cough or difficulty breathing.

Other symptoms may include headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash and diarrhea, according to the World Health Organization.

Experts think that SARS is spread by close contact between people, most likely when a person who is sick with the illness sneezes or coughs and someone breathes the droplets in the air. SARS may also be spread more broadly through the air or by touching contaminated objects, according to the CDC.

The period of time that a person with SARS can transmit the illness to others is not known.

No SARS cases have been reported in Maryland, says Washington County Health Department Health Officer Bill Christoffel.

If suspected cases were to surface, individuals would be isolated - in the hospital if they were too sick to be at home, Christoffel says.

The cause of SARS is not known, although scientists from nearly a dozen countries are collaborating to figure it out. The leading suspect is a previously unrecognized coronavirus, although other viruses are under investigation. Coronaviruses are a common cause of mild to moderate upper-respiratory illness in humans and are associated with respiratory and other diseases in animals, according to the CDC.

A test for SARS has not been developed, but two research tests are considered promising.

Recommended treatment for SARS is the same treatment that would be prescribed for a patient with "serious community-acquired atypical pneumonia of unknown cause," according to the CDC. Antibiotic, antiviral and steroid treatments have been tried, but there isn't enough information to determine if they had a beneficial effect.

Despite the uncertainty, some Hagerstown residents are optimistic and are not necessarily abandoning their trips abroad.

John Erath of Hagerstown has a business that has taken him to the Orient for more than 30 years.

He recently returned from Korea and frequently travels to China. He says he's confident that SARS will be figured out. "I just feel very positive."

Christoffel says he is sure that a vaccine will be developed for SARS.

Hagerstown resident Mary Poffenberger will travel to China on Monday, May 5. She is aware of the CDC's advice to postpone nonessential travel to Hong Kong and China's Guangdong Province. Guangdong Province is exactly where she's headed.

She's been planning the trip for months, and she will not postpone it.

Poffenberger is traveling to China to meet Alice, the 8-month-old Chinese baby girl she's adopting, and to bring her home to Hagerstown.

"This is not non-essential travel," she says.

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