What Was the SARS Outbreak?

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  • Written By: M. DePietro
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 16 January 2020
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The SARS outbreak occurred in Asia in 2003. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, also known as SARS, is caused by the coronavirus. The illness often led to pneumonia, and in some cases developed into acute respiratory distress. The 2003 SARS outbreak spread to 24 countries and infected more than 8,000 people in the course of a few months. The United States only saw eight confirmed cases of SARS during the outbreak.

Symptoms of SARS were similar to the flu and included fever, body aches, chest congestion, and cough. The most serious symptom was trouble breathing. When this became severe, respiratory distress syndrome developed and led to death in some cases.

The illness was spread through contact with respiratory droplets from others who were infected with SARS. For instance, breathing in the respiratory particles when someone with SARS sneezed, transmitted the disease. During the 2003 outbreak, it spread easily at locations where people were in close contact, such as at schools and workplaces.

Because SARS was caused by a virus, patients could not be treated with antibiotics. Treatment involved relieving symptoms. Pain relievers and medications to lower fevers were given. Some people developed diarrhea and needed fluid replacement. In cases where severe respiratory distress syndrome developed, a ventilator was needed to assist with breathing.


Because of the SARS outbreak in 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed a plan to contain the spread of the disease. The outbreak timeline starts in late February of 2003, with the diagnosis of an atypical pneumonia in Hong Kong. This illness later became know as SARS.

To understand how fast the disease appeared, spread, and was contained, it is important to understand the outbreak timeline. In March of 2003 the WHO released a global warning about the SARS outbreak, as it spread to 13 countries. In April, a warning was issued to avoid all unnecessary travel to Hong Kong due to the SARS outbreak. In May of that same year, health officials made further attempts to prevent the spread of the virus by closing schools in Beijing for a few weeks.

It appeared the containment efforts were working in early summer of 2003. The number of SARS cases decreased greatly. In June of 2003, the WHO lifted the travel warning and announced the rapid spread of the illness had declined, and the outbreak appeared contained. The last confirmed case of SARS was reported in the fall of 2003. Researchers are not sure what caused the illness to first appear or why it stopped.


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