The world health report

Chapter 5: SARS: lessons from a new disease

SARS: lessons from a new disease

New diseases have been emerging at the unprecedented rate of one a year for the last two decades, and this trend is certain to continue. The sudden and deadly arrival of SARS on the global health stage early in 2003 was in some ways perhaps the most dramatic of all. Its rapid containment is one of the biggest success stories in public health in recent years. But how much of that success was a result of good fortune as well as good science? How narrow was the escape from an international health disaster? What tipped the scales? The international response to SARS will shape future strategies against infectious epidemics.

The day-by-day struggle to control the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) represents a major victory for public health collaboration. Key lessons emerge that will be invaluable in shaping the future of infectious disease control -- and being ready for the day when the next new disease arrives without warning. First and most important is the need to report, promptly and openly, cases of any disease with the potential for international spread in a closely interconnected and highly mobile world. Second, timely global alerts can prevent imported cases from igniting big outbreaks in new areas. Third, travel recommendations, including screening measures at airports, help to contain the international spread of an emerging infection. Fourth, the world's best scientists, clinicians and public health experts, aided by electronic communications, can collaborate to generate rapidly the scientific basis for control measures. Fifth, weaknesses in health systems play a key role in permitting emerging infections to spread. Sixth, an outbreak can be contained even without a curative drug or a vaccine if existing interventions are tailored to the circumstances and backed by political commitment. Finally, risk communication about new and emerging infections is a great challenge, and it is vital to ensure that the most accurate information is successfully and unambiguously communicated to the public. WHO is applying these lessons across the Organization as it scales up its response to the HIV/AIDS emergency.

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