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All that you should know about SARS

Frequently asked questions about SARS and answers from health experts:

WHAT IS IT'

Scientists say SARS is caused by a new virus from the family of coronaviruses, which also causes the common cold.

The World Health Organisation says the disease originated in China’s southern province of Guangdong, before spreading to Hong Kong, where it was then carried around the world by air travellers. SARS is a type of a typical pneumonia, which is usually caused by viruses, such as influenza viruses, adenovirus and other respiratory viruses, according to Hong Kong health officials.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS'

The WHO says the main symptoms of SARS are fever above 100° F, a dry cough and breathing difficulties. Changes in chest X-rays, which are indicative of pneumonia, also occur. SARS may be associated with other symptoms, including chills, headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, malaise, confusion, rash and diarrhoea.

HOW DANGEROUS IS IT'

The mortality rate appears to be 4 to 6 per cent. In Hong Kong, at least, those who are infected invariably develop severe pneumonia, which can cause numerous complications.

HOW ARE PATIENTS TREATED'

There is currently no specific cure for the disease. But doctors worldwide have been treating it with ribavirin, an antiviral drug, and steroids. Ribavirin works against a wide range of viruses, while steroids serve to reduce the immune response which is contributing to part of the damage to the lung. Doctors say if treated early, most patients without other serious illnesses can recover.

HOW DOES IT SPREAD'

WHO and Hong Kong experts say the virus spreads through droplets by sneezing or coughing and such direct infection can usually occur within a radius of about three feet. The virus can also spread indirectly as it can survive outside the human body for three to six hours. Contact with any object that is tainted by droplets containing the virus, for example, a contaminated phone, could lead to infection if a person then touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth.

HOW FAST DOES IT SPREAD'

WHO says SARS appears to be less infectious than influenza, and is not highly contagious when protective measures are used. Hong Kong doctors said the sicker the patient, the more infectious he or she is.

HOW DOES THE VIRUS TRAVEL GLOBALLY'

When an infected person travels, he or she can spread the virus to other passengers and also to people at the destination.

WHO IS MOST LIKELY TO BE INFECTED'

The virus is highly concentrated in discharges such as mucous or phlegm when the victim is very sick. Therefore, the virus has tended to spread primarily to healthcare workers treating victims or close family members of victims.

HOW SHOULD INFECTED PATIENTS BE MANAGED'

WHO says patients should be isolated. Healthcare workers and visitors should wear efficient filter masks, goggles, aprons, head covers, and gloves when in close contact with the patient.

WHAT CAN YOU DO TO AVOID SARS'

Doctors recommend extra care with hygiene: washing hands often with soap, and avoiding touching the mouth, eyes or nose. When in close contact with SARS patients or even at a three-feet distance, people should wear masks and protective gear like gloves, goggles and gowns.

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