Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a disease that causes severe pneumonia. It first appeared in southern China in late 2002 and then rapidly spread to several countries throughout 2003. There have been no outbreaks since that time but there is a risk of outbreaks in the future.
Last updated: 19 November 2016


What is SARS?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a disease that causes pneumonia and first appeared in southern China in late 2002. It then spread to several countries throughout the world between February and June 2003. As a result of public health measures, the SARS outbreak was stamped out by July 2003. Since then a small number of cases have occurred in Asia, but outbreaks were quickly controlled.

In 2003, the areas with the majority of SARS cases were parts of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hanoi, Toronto, and Singapore. It is not known if a SARS epidemic will recur.

The organism that causes SARS is a new and more virulent type of coronavirus, called SARS-CoV. Coronaviruses are one of a family of viruses that cause the common cold.

The Himalayan masked palm civet was considered the main source of animal-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV.

What are the symptoms?

People with SARS develop fever as well as cough or breathing difficulties. Symptoms usually develop two to seven days after being exposed to the virus, although it may be up to 10 days. Other symptoms can include headache, chills, muscle aches, poor appetite, dizziness, diarrhoea and sore throat. These symptoms are commonly seen with other types of infection and are not specific to SARS.

Some people with SARS develop severe pneumonia and about 20% will require artificial ventilation in an intensive care unit. Overall, about 10 to 15% of those diagnosed with SARS have died, with a higher risk in the elderly or those with chronic disease.

How is it spread?

The SARS-CoV outbreak in 2002-03 is believed to have started with animal to human infection in southern China, probably from infected civets, then spread from primarily from person to person.

SARS-CoV is usually spread from someone who is unwell with the illness via contaminated droplets produced when they cough or sneeze, or via direct contact with contaminated hands. Rarely, the virus may be spread more widely in the air from very ill patients.

People who are infected with the virus but do not yet have symptoms are not thought to be infectious.

Who is at risk?

People in close contact with a sick SARS patient are most at risk. To be at risk of contracting SARS, a person must have exposure to the virus. People working with the virus in laboratories maybe at risk if precautions are not taken.

How is it prevented?

There is no vaccine against SARS. Should a SARS epidemic occur, there are some simple things you can do to prevent the spread of infections like SARS. You should:

  • wash your hands often and well, with soap and running water for at least 10 seconds
  • wash your hands especially after going to the toilet, after blowing your nose or sneezing, and before handling food, after being out in public and before touching other people (e.g. shaking hands)
  • cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • stay at home if you are sick.

There are special precautions needed for people who are suspected of having SARS and their carers. Advice will be provided by your local public health unit.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosis is based on possible exposure to the virus, symptoms and a chest X-ray. The virus may be found in swabs of the nose and throat, using special PCR tests. SARS-specific serology (a blood test that detects antibodies) will accurately diagnose SARS infection in over 95% of cases when taken four weeks or more after symptoms.

How is it treated?

Should a SARS epidemic recur, and you travelled in a SARS-affected area in the 10 days before you develop fever, cough or shortness of breath requiring hospital treatment, you should phone ahead to your local doctor or Emergency Department for advice.

There is no cure for SARS, so treatment is supportive.

What is the public health response?

Doctors, hospitals and laboratories must report suspected cases of SARS to the local public health unit. The public health unit staff can help ensure appropriate diagnostic tests are done at a reference laboratory.

The suspected patient must be isolated and contacts identified, counselled, and isolated themselves from others if symptoms begin and seek urgent medical assessment.

A single confirmed case of SARS would constitute a public health emergency of international concern.

Further information

For further information please call your local Public Health Unit on 1300 066 055.

Current as at: Saturday 19 November 2016
Contact page owner: Vaccine Preventable Diseases