Dispelling rumors, getting prepared

You’ve heard about it in Asia, in Toronto, spots in Europe and on both the east and west coast of the United States. It’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, better known as SARS, and it’s the latest epidemic on the planet, with approximately 6,500 reported cases and 460 deaths to its credit worldwide.

Rapid spread of this disease is causing universities nationwide to take preventative measures. Washington State University has canceled several faculty-led summer programs to China and other infected nations listed by the U.S. Center for Disease Control. The university’s Health and Wellness Services has information available online, and the university’s Epidemic/Outbreak Planning Team began meeting Thursday, May 8. This team will regularly review and consider current and potential steps to take, based on changing information or situations.

At the eye of the storm, Beijing is closing schools and hospitals, and China, nationally, is canceling the start of professional sports. China’s citizens are trying to flee cities or are stockpiling food in what an Associated Press article from April 24 called “panic buying.” Recent news, however, hints that perhaps the illness is beginning to taper off in Beijing.

In the United States arena of academe, there are reported cases of one student at Syracuse University in New York, one student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and a teacher at Brown University in Rhode Island. None of these cases appear to be spreading at this time, and there are no reported fatalities among the 320 or so cases being monitored in the states. Over 2000 stricken people in the current “hot spots” on the globe have recovered, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Meanwhile, some universities are taking additional precautionary steps, such as UC Berkeley, which announced May 5 that it would not take summer students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, People’s Republic of China and Singapore.

Examining the disease
What’s the difference between “severe” and “acute”?

According to Bruce Wright, director of Health and Wellness Services, the term “severe” represents the statistics that 20 – 25 percent of confirmed cases develop pneumonia to the point of needing hospitalization and that the mortality rate is 6 – 8 percent, a result of the pneumonia. “Acute” indicates that after an incubation period of seven to 10 days, the illness progresses quickly.

Wright says SARS is caused by a virus, as indicated by the symptoms. This view was confirmed just over a week ago, when teams of Canadian and U.S. researchers identified two nearly identical genetic sequences of the SARS virus and submitted their work for peer review. The genome will be published in the next issue of the journal, “Science” and is also available on the Web.

The researchers have established that SARS is type of “coronavirus,” but unlike any other in that viral family. The majority of known coronaviruses tend to affect animals more than people. Current vaccines for coronaviruses are not likely to provide a leg up for developing a treatment for SARS.

A recent development shows the virus is hardier than originally thought, lasting for a day or longer on open surfaces. The cooler the temperature, the longer it can last. And a common detergent has been found to be ineffective in killing the virus. This means infection by skin contact is possible. Other new evidence being currently debated among researchers is that SARS may have a higher mortality rate among the middle-aged and elderly and that the people could carry the virus longer than previously thought before showing symptoms of the disease.

Researchers with WHO and CDC announced this information. But the same scientists remain convinced, so far, that being coughed on or hit by lung secretions from an infected person is the main mechanism of disease transferal, and they admit the new-found hardiness of the virus did not really come as a surprise.

Risk at WSU?
Dr. James Turner, a preventable-disease specialist for the American College Health Association has said, according to an article in the April 24 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, that colleges need to be prepared to handle SARS because these institutions could serve as breeding grounds for the disease. College communities are highly mobile groups of people who live in very close quarters, he said in the article.

Wright acknowledges that there is no known cure and that the only treatment is to isolate the person suspected to be infected, monitor the symptoms and let the disease run its course, typically within one to two weeks. Hospitalization, possibly with a breathing assistance device, may be needed. Monitoring those who had close contact with the person is another safeguard.

But Wright also wants to inoculate the WSU community against the fear factor with a healthy dose of factual information. There are no reported cases east of the Cascades and those reported on the West side appear to be from those who traveled to infected areas in Asia.

The following points offer some good news for America, and thus should also encourage the university:

• The disease in the United States is showing milder symptoms than those in Asia.

• There are no U.S. deaths.

• The virus in this country is spreading slowly.

• There is no “community” evidence — no pockets of disease like in Asia or Toronto.

“It takes prolonged close contact to catch SARS,” Wright asserts. “If a known infected person coughs on you, you can contract the illness. But casual association for a brief time is not likely to spread it. Contacts of contacts don’t spread it — it’s not wildfire contagious.”

Classrooms and dormitories, of themselves, do not constitute a greater risk, Wright feels, but a roommate who has the illness would.

Suspect vs. probable
He points out the difference between “suspect” and “probable” infections. “Suspect” is someone who has traveled recently to one of the affected areas, or had recent close contact with a person who has SARS, and then develops symptoms of 100.4 or greater fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, and other nonspecific viral symptoms like muscle aches and fatigue. “Probable” is someone who meets suspect criteria, plus shows X-ray evidence of infection of the lungs, i.e. pneumonia.

Rational response
“We’re ready,” said Wright, “with the latest information on the facts of the disease and ways to isolate suspected cases, if they even appear in Pullman.”

His advice is to get educated, directing people to the CDC, WHO and Health & Wellness websites. He also recommends avoiding travel to infected areas, monitoring suspicious symptoms and contacting health-care providers if concerns over possible symptoms build.

Finally, Wright reemphasized that there are no SARS cases in Pullman.

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