In late 2002 and early 2003, reports of a new disease called severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerged from parts of Asia. Since then, the illness has been found in other parts of the world, including Europe and North and South America. During the initial 2003 outbreak, only 8 people in the United States were diagnosed with SARS. All of them had traveled to parts of the world where there were people infected with SARS. In all of those areas, SARS was uncommon in children.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome is caused by a specific virus from a family of organisms called coronaviruses. They received their name because when examined under the microscope, they look something like a halo or crown. Other coronaviruses are a common cause of mild to moderate upper respiratory tract infections in children and adults. The incubation period is 2 to 7 days.
Signs and Symptoms
In many places, SARS has been a very contagious disease. In most cases, it starts with a high fever. People with the infection may then develop other symptoms, including
A dry cough tends to occur after several days. Pneumonia then develops in most people.
What You Can Do
Before traveling to Asia and other areas where cases of SARS have been most prevalent, seek the advice of your pediatrician and keep up-to-date on travel advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When to Call Your Pediatrician
If your child develops these symptoms, particularly breathing difficulties that might indicate the development of SARS or other pneumonia-like infections, contact your pediatrician. Also contact your pediatrician if your child develops any respiratory symptoms after traveling to an area with a known SARS outbreak or being in contact with anyone known or suspected of having SARS.
How Is the Diagnosis Made?
Because the symptoms of SARS are similar to those of other respiratory infections, your pediatrician will conduct a physical examination and perform tests that may rule out other conditions. Diagnostic tests specifically for coronaviruses are generally unavailable.
The treatment of SARS is similar to that given to patients with viral pneumonia and is generally supportive. It may include giving oxygen during hospitalization (in some cases, a ventilator or breathing device will be used). A number of antiviral medications are being tested for use in SARS, but no specific medication has been proven to be effective.
What Is the Prognosis?
Most people recover from SARS. However, in the initial outbreaks of 2002 and 2003, there were 774 deaths among the more than 8,000 cases that were identified.
At this time, the risk of SARS in children and adults in the United States is thought to be relatively low. Public health officials continue to monitor the worldwide patterns of the disease.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome is spread during close contact with a person who has the infection, usually during sneezing or coughing. A child can also pick up the virus if she touches a toy or other object or surface that has been contaminated with the virus.
To reduce the risk of SARS, make sure your child washes her hands frequently with soap and hot water. No vaccination is available to prevent SARS.