Health checks on an airplane

Case study: SARS

A success story

Tackling a newly emerging infectious disease requires global surveillance and a global response plan but, as was seen with SARS, success really depends on local action. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) was a serious and highly contagious form of pneumonia that emerged in China in November 2002. By the time it was over in June 2003 there had been 8,098 cases and 774 deaths in 32 countries.

As bad as that sounds, it could have been much, much worse. Outside China local transmission (that is, non-travel-related infection) was limited to a handful of Asian cities plus Toronto and Vancouver. SARS was contained and stamped out because the public health authorities in the communities most affected mounted a rapid and effective response.

In Toronto SARS spread to more than half of the city’s acute care hospitals, but the disease was prevented from spreading throughout the general population. How? Because affected hospitals were closed to new patients and to all visitors, and because rigid quarantine restrictions were imposed on anyone who had been in contact with a suspected SARS patient.

Between 13 February and 30 June 2003 health officials tracked down at least 25,000 people and ordered them to stay in their homes for ten days. Anyone who developed signs or symptoms of SARS was immediately taken to hospital to be treated in isolation. As with any infection, knowledge of how it was spreading was crucial to its control. For example, SARS was at its most infectious while patients were showing symptoms (as opposed to just before), and therefore preventing patients from travelling or contacting others was of paramount importance during this stage.

The severity of the Canadian response was questioned, however. And there is some evidence that quarantined individuals suffered psychological distress as a result. Today, the GOARN (Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network) remains on the lookout for SARS, but since June 2003 no suspected cases have been confirmed. However, a related virus known as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is now infecting people in the Middle East, with a higher death rate than SARS.

Lead image:

Health checks on an aeroplane.

Tricia Wang/Flickr CC BY NC


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Epidemics’ in September 2007 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Health, infection and disease, Medicine, Immunology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development