SARS: Avoiding the Madness

As concerns over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) spread from China to Hong Kong, Vietnam to Canada, so too did often irrational fear, says infectious disease specialist James Steckelberg, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic.

"I've received many questions about SARS from both patients and colleagues," explains Steckelberg. "You can avoid the madness simply by taking some prudent steps and going on with life."

People don't need to run to the store for face masks, nor do they need to wear them every time they board a plane. There have been cases of SARS in the United States, and there are still fears of a widespread outbreak. But Steckelberg points out it's not known that a widespread outbreak will occur.

He recommends some key facts to keep in mind regarding SARS:

  • As of July 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported no ongoing transmission anywhere in the world and removed the last travel alert (for Taiwan). Many respiratory infections have seasonal outbreaks, and whether SARS will return again this fall or winter isn't known.
  • Effective control is possible with quarantine, as shown in Vietnam the first country that the World Health Organization declared had contained SARS.
  • Most people in the United States are at minimal risk. Weight problems and poor health habits are far more likely to affect people in the United States than is SARS.
  • Many other infectious diseases are more prevalent and have higher fatality rates than does SARS.
  • To minimize your risk of contracting SARS, don't travel to the specific areas noted by the CDC and the World Health Organization. If travel is essential, keep up-to-date on travel restrictions and issues by monitoring those agencies' Web sites. Before traveling to high-risk areas, seek advice from a travel or health professional.
  • Hand washing and good personal hygiene are always good ideas.
  • Health-care workers and families with members who have possible SARS should pay careful attention to recommendations from local health officials or the CDC.

"These tips and some common sense should ease some of your fears," explains Steckelberg. "Stay informed, be careful as appropriate, stay healthy and carry on with life."

For more information about SARS or other infectious diseases, visit the Infectious Disease Center at

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