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FOR RELEASE: May 1, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications
405/271-5601

Suspected SARS No Reason to Panic, Say State Health Officials

Although health officials are investigating Oklahoma’s first suspect case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and continue to investigate reports of illness from travelers who have returned from areas of the world where the disease has been reported, the Oklahoma State Department of Health says Oklahomans should not be unduly alarmed.

“Unless you have recently traveled to countries where cases of SARS have been reported or you have had close contact with a SARS patient, you are at virtually no risk of acquiring SARS,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Leslie Beitsch.

A Tulsa County man who spent a two-hour layover in a Hong Kong airport late last week became ill with a high fever and cough when he returned home. Although initial testing suggested that the man had influenza, because he had spent time in an international airport with an area of documented or suspected community transmission of SARS, and had respiratory symptoms compatible with the disease, he met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) case definition as being a “suspect” case of SARS. Laboratory specimens have been sent to the CDC to be tested for the coronavirus that has been identified as the cause of SARS. A Tulsa County woman who became ill after returning home this week from a visit to China is also being monitored to see if she develops symptoms associated with SARS.

Suspect SARS cases have fever greater than 100.4 degrees, respiratory illness, and recent travel to an affected area with community transmission of SARS and/or contact with a suspect SARS patient.

Probable SARS cases meet the criteria for a suspect case and also have evidence (e.g., chest X-ray) of pneumonia or respiratory distress syndrome.

Laboratory-confirmed cases meet laboratory criteria for evidence of infection with the SARS-associated coronavirus.

Community transmission means spread of illness among members of the community or general public that did not involve close contact with a SARS patient. Areas with documented or suspected community transmission of SARS include the People's Republic of China (i.e., mainland China and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region); Hanoi, Vietnam; Singapore; and Toronto, Canada.

SARS was first recognized in Asia in February this year. Most of the U.S. cases of SARS have occurred among travelers returning to the United States from other parts of the world affected by SARS. There have been very few cases as a result of spread to close contacts such as family members and health care workers. Currently, there is no evidence that SARS is spreading more widely in the community in the United States.

The primary way that SARS appears to spread is by close person-to-person contact, including touching the skin of other people or objects that are contaminated with infectious respiratory droplets and then touching your eye(s), nose, or mouth. This can happen when someone who is sick with SARS coughs or sneezes droplets onto themselves, other people, or nearby surfaces. It also is possible that SARS can be spread more broadly through the air or by other ways that are currently not known.

“As with all infectious illnesses, the first line of defense is prevention; practice careful hand washing with soap and water and avoid close contact to persons with respiratory illness. If you plan to travel to countries where SARS has been reported as a result of community transmission, you may wish to avoid close contact with large numbers of people as much as possible,” Beitsch said.

As of April 30, the CDC has reported 289 cases of SARS in 38 states, including 233 suspect cases and 56 probable cases. No deaths have been reported in the U.S. The World Health Organization reports 5,663 cases of SARS in 26 countries, with 372 deaths.

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