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Biology 103
2003 First Paper
On Serendip

The Truth About SARS

Elizabeth Bryan

The Truth About SARS

People in general are both fascinated and paranoid of the onset of new infectious diseases. While films such as "Outbreak" are smash hits at the box office, when an actual disease becomes apparent people often react with a kind of mass hysteria. Last year, a new illness reared its evil head. While the name "SARS" has become fairly well-known, the actual facts behind the illness are not as widely talked about.
SARS is an acronym for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The illness usually first becomes evident with a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, general malaise, and body aches. This adds to the difficulty of identifying SARS; the general signs of the illness are so similar to more common ailments such as influenza and pneumonia. After a period of two to seven days, SARS patients usually develop a dry cough that eventually escalates to the point where insufficient oxygen is reaching the blood stream. In roughly ten to twenty percent of cases, infected persons will require mechanical ventilation. This two to seven day period is generally considered the incubation period (#1).
The treatment of SARS remains a gray area. Currently all treatments are fairly similar to treatments given to patients ailing from serious community acquired atypical pneumonia. Health care professionals are experimenting with new medications to see if other methods are more effective; however, a concrete treatment is still unknown. The antiviral medications oseltamivir and ribarivirin have been used, often in conjunction with steroids. However, there have been no controlled clinical trials using these medications, so their rates of success still remain virtually unknown < "1">1)
While an absolute and final answer to the question of "Where does SARS come from?" has yet to be found, scientists have begun making important observations about its roots. Scientists have detected a previously unrecognized coronavirus in SARS patients, and this has become the leading hypothesis for the cause of SARS. Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that, when viewed under a powerful microscope, have a halo or crown-like (hence corona) appearance. Viruses under these headings are known to commonly cause mild to moderate upper respiratory illness in humans. In animals, coronaviruses are associated with respiratory, gastrointestinal, liver, and neurological diseases. Also, new ways to detect SARS have been discovered. Serologic testing for the SARS syndrome can be performed using indirect fluorescent antibodies or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays that are specific for the antibody that was produced after infection. A reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (known as RT-PCR) test can also detect SARS in specimens such as serum, stool, and nasal secretions. Also, viral cultures and isolation have been used to detect SARS < "1">1)
While many conclusions have been drawn about SARS, such as its incubation period and symptoms, the unknowns concerning the syndrome remain unsettling. The fear that people have concerning the syndrome is not unwarranted. According to the World Health Organization, as of June 5, 2003, an estimated 8,403 cases have been reported with a total of 775 deaths attributed to the syndrome < "2">2)world health organization. The countries that have the highest reported amount of infected persons are as follows: Canada (218 cases, 31 deaths), China (5,329 cases, 336 deaths), Hong Kong (1,748 cases, 284 deaths), Singapore (206 cases, 31 deaths), Taiwan (677 cases, 81 deaths), United States (69 cases, no deaths), and Vietnam (63 cases, 5 deaths). Other countries that have reported cases of SARS include Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines, Ireland, Korea, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, however, there have been fewer than ten incidents in each nation.
In wasn't until taking Biology 103 that I began to question science. I'm a self-proclaimed "English and history person", who always understood the ambiguity of literature and questioning the past results of historical events. I always considered the field of science to be quite the opposite. Science, unlike other academic pursuits, was reliable. However, I'm now beginning to realize how unreliable science really is. To finally comprehend that all science is is lots of summaries makes it a lot less intimidating to me, however, also somewhat unsettling.
The same is true of medicine. As someone previously fairly unfamiliar with medical terms and what lies behind diseases, I always believed that no matter what, doctors, like I thought scientists, had all the answers. This happens to not be so. Concerning SARS, scientists and medical professionals have merely made many summaries of observations. Like science, there is no certainty. Yes, it has been found that SARS is relatable to coronaviruses, however, coronaviruses are linked to many other illnesses. Coronaviruses were already known to cause mild to moderate upper respiratory illness in humans, so grouping SARS with such illnesses may be true, however, fails to single out SARS to any one cause, thus not really proving anything specific to the syndrome. This is highly unsettling to someone who previously put all her faith in doctors and scientists. Never before had I questioned such esteemed professionals, but now feel that by not questioning them I'll never be aware of the actual truth.
Perhaps someday the root causes of SARS will be known. As with all ailments, there was always a time when certain things that seem obvious now were unknowns. However, until that day comes, humanity will continue to rely on the observations of scientists and doctors to diagnose and treat SARS.


1), comprehensive SARS info site

2) href="">world health organzation, the World Health Organization official site

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