First the experts thought it was a mutation of coronavirus, which causes the common cold, then it was said to be a mutation of avian flu, which has been trying to migrate to humans for the last three years. Now the cause is unclear. However, there are 4,600 people infected in 28 countries and 260 have died already.
The World Health Organization yesterday issued a travel warning to people going to Toronto (Canada) and Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanxi Province in China, a measure which irritated the Canadian authorities. However, with 330 cases confirmed and 16 deaths, Toronto is the worst-affected city outside China, where 21 provinces have reported confirmed cases and a further five suspected cases.
It is here where the epicentre of the disease is located – 3,910 cases and 219 deaths reported but independent authorities believe the real figure could be much higher.The WHO believes that China is still “under-reporting”, a fact which if true does nothing to help the organisation come to terms with reality.
In a sign that the authorities have begun to face the seriousness of the situation, draconian measures have been put into action: the families of suspected SARS patients are being put into quarantine and a hospital which was treating the patients has been isolated, its 200 health workers also put into quarantine, while primary schools are closed indefinitely.
Meanwhile panic has started to grip the population, with millions of people fleeing to the countryside.
SARS, like Spanish Flu in 1918/1919, which killed between 20 and 60 million people worldwide, appears to have migrated to humans from birds but also like Spanish flu, mutated very soon afterwards. It is suspected by some experts that its continuous mutating action keeps it one step ahead of the authorities all the time, making it impossible to produce a vaccine. Also like Spanish flu, SARS began by attacking the elderly and infirm but now begins to attack younger, healthy people, who were the main victims of the plague which killed more people than the First World War.
Meanwhile the disease claims more and more victims and the death toll has stabilised at around 5%. If a bad flu epidemic affects 30% of the population of a country, the death toll in a worldwide pandemic would run into tens of millions of people.
The symptoms are like flu: a temperature over 38єC (100.4F), headache, aching limbs. Breathing problems occur in some patients and after two to seven days, a dry cough appears, before the respiratory system shuts down, suffocating the patient.
The good news is that SARS at least until now, is only caught by having close physical contact with the victims, i.e. being close enough to be coughed on or sneezed over. Therefore, avoiding contact with groups of people reduces the incidence of the disease and the act of washing the hands thoroughly at regular intervals prevents up to 50% of infections.
Finally, if 5% are dying from the disease, the other 95% recover fully. The vast majority of the patients walk home from the hospital after a successful period of treatment.