26 September 2003
U.S. Will Be Prepared for Next SARS Outbreak, Health Officials
Active hunt underway for effective medicines,
By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- Top U.S. health officials said September 26 they
can't predict when and if another outbreak of severe acute respiratory
syndrome (SARS) will strike, but they'll be ready when it does.
"Preparedness is absolutely essential," said Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding in a news
conference at the agency's Atlanta, Georgia headquarters. "We have
to learn to expect the unexpected."
SARS, a previously unknown disease, first appeared in late 2002.
By the first quarter of 2003, it had escalated into an outbreak
most concentrated in several Asian nations, but appearing ultimately
in 29 countries. More than 8,400 people took ill with the flu-like
disease; almost one thousand died.
Even as the global health community rushed during those first
months to contain and control a poorly understood, virulent disease,
it was evident that SARS was likely to follow the pattern of other
respiratory ailments -- becoming dormant in warmer months and re-emerging
in colder months. With those colder months now drawing closer in
the Northern Hemisphere, health officials are taking steps to respond
more rapidly than during the first outbreak.
U.S. Secretary of Health Tommy G. Thompson explained the far-reaching
effort. The Department of Health and Human Services "is continuing
to work with the free market medical community as well as the scientific
community to make sure that our nation will be fully prepared if
SARS re-emerges," he said.
Gerberding said effective SARS preparedness depends on collaboration
between laboratories, public health officials and ministers of
health in many countries. "We're all talking about SARS preparedness
collectively. One country or one agency can't do this alone. It
requires global connectivity to be successful."
At the same time, significant research is under way at the nation's
premier health research agency -- the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) -- to develop better tools for accurately diagnosing SARS
and for curing it.
"NIH is screening existing antiviral drugs and other compounds
to see if any of them will work against SARS," Thompson said. He
said the various research agencies involved in this effort "have
been able to go through more than 1,000 compounds. ... They plan
to screen as many as 100,000 compounds." The screening process
has identified some substances that show promise doing battle against
SARS, and Thompson said more intensive research is under way.
Individual citizens can also contribute to the SARS prevention
effort by getting a flu vaccine, health officials point out. SARS
and flu are marked by similar symptoms -- fever, headache, body
ache, and respiratory distress. When presented with a coughing,
feverish patient, health care providers need to be able to determine
whether the illness is common flu or potentially fatal SARS as
quickly as possible. Reducing the number of flu cases through a
widespread vaccination campaign will help achieve that. Gerberding
emphasized, however, that flu can be diagnosed definitively while
such tests are still lacking for SARS, which is caused by a coronavirus
related to flu.
These two prominent health officials were unwilling to offer odds
on the probability of a SARS recurrence, but Gerberding seemed
to have few doubts.
"As an infectious disease expert ... I've never seen a pathogen
emerge and go away on its own, so I think we have to expect that
somewhere, sometime this coronavirus is going to rear its ugly
head again," Gerberding said. The CDC director also indicated that
Asia is a likely place for SARS to begin its re-emergence, though
she said the past cannot be used to predict the future.
Whatever happens, Gerberding said the global health community
is in a better position today to cope with SARS than when it first
appeared as an unknown killer. In fact, she suggested that SARS
may signify a new development in global health that will be marked
by the frequent emergence of previously unknown diseases "[T]his
preparedness for SARS is going to pay off sooner or later, because
if it's not SARS it will be something else and we'll be ready for