SARS claims fewer lives than flu

County health director says to be aware, but not panicked, over the respiratory disease

Hood River’s lead health official said hand-washing could be the best defense against catching SARS and other illnesses that are spread by person-to-person contact.

“It’s just like your mother always told you, the best thing you can do is wash your hands a lot,” said Ellen Larsen, director of the county health department.

She said although cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) have been reported in more than 26 countries around the world, the illness has yet to reach the state of Oregon. And, contrary to extensive media coverage about SARS deaths, Larsen said the disease has actually killed far less people than influenza strains do each year.

“We live in a very small world so it’s definitely something to pay attention to but not get panicked over,” Larsen said.

For example, she said, as of Thursday, there had been 5,663 cases of SARS tabulated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Of that total, Larsen said 372 people had died — much less than the 576 Oregon residents alone who succumbed to the flu in 2001. She said one similarity between SARS and the flu is that it appears to be most deadly among “vulnerable” populations, such as the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. WHO officials contend that the global death rate of SARS is about six percent and far lower than that of AIDS, Ebola or malaria.

“The big thing is that it’s a new disease and there is a lot of concern that it’s going to be the next pandemic that moves around the world,” Larsen said.

Because of the heightened state of global concern, Pres. George W. Bush recently added SARS to the list of diseases that necessitate the quarantine of its victims.

Larsen said SARS is believed to be a new strain of the coronavirus family, which typically causes colds in humans. She said the illness appears to be spread primarily through direct touch to the skin of an infected person or by handling objects they have been in contact with and then touching your own eyes, nose or mouth. However, she said there is also scientific speculation that SARS might also be transmitted more broadly through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Larsen said the first phase of SARS involves flu-like symptoms, with patients experiencing a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, chills, headache and muscle aches. Within a week, most victims develop a dry cough and difficulty in breathing, and some also get severe diarrhea.

Early treatment of the illness appears to make recovery much faster and less debilitating, but Larsen said people who suspect they have contracted SARS should notify their medical care provider prior to making an office visit.

“Don’t just show up, you need to call and let them know you are coming or have someone go inside and alert them,” said Larsen. “You don’t want to take this potentially serious disease and give it to everyone in the waiting room.”

She said regular updates on SARS are posted on the Webiste of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov.

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