Health Watch -- Dangerous Disease?

Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

Is a new, deadly disease sweeping the world?

In recent weeks, you may have heard about a new respiratory illness that has health officials worried. It's called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. It has some symptoms similar to the flu, but doesn't appear to be caused by an influenza virus, and it has some similarities to pneumonia, but is also different in some ways. Doctors are still trying to track down the origin of this illness. Should you be worried about it?

Not yet, according to Dr. Paul Pepe, an emergency room doctor at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He says the virus appears to require prolonged contact with an infected person in order to spread. Casual contact doesn't seem to spread the disease, so you're not likely to catch it from someone you pass in the mall.

The most cases have been reported in Asia, primarily in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam. Cases that have occurred elsewhere in the world have all had links to Asia through people who had traveled there or who had been in contact with people who'd traveled there. Because our society is so mobile and modern transportation makes it possible for people to travel across the world in a short time, that does increase the chances of the disease spreading.

Dr. Pepe says the main thing to do right now is make sure health-care workers are aware of the illness. They need to know to ask anyone with flu-like symptoms, such as the sudden onset of fever and difficulty breathing, if they've recently traveled to Asia or have been in contact with someone who's traveled to Asia.