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2003

World Health Organization declares SARS contained worldwide

On this day in 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) announces that all person-to-person transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has ceased. In the previous eight months, the disease had killed about 775 people in 29 countries and exposed the dangers of globalization in the context of public health. In spite of WHO’s announcement, a new case was diagnosed in China in January 2004, and four more diagnoses followed that April.

The first cases of SARS—then believed to be pneumonia—likely appeared in China’s Guangdong province in November 2002. On February 15, 2003, China reported 305 cases of atypical pneumonia, which was later found to be SARS. China was criticized, and later apologized, for failing to alert world health authorities of the initial outbreak and taking proper precautions to contain it. SARS soon spread to neighboring areas, like Hong Kong and Vietnam, and then around the world via air travel. In March, an elderly Canadian woman died from SARS after returning to Toronto from a visit to Hong Kong. The illness went on to kill 44 people in the Toronto area. In China, where the first cases occurred, 350 people died from the disease. In all, more than 8,000 people are thought to have been infected.

Following the WHO’s March 12, 2003, issuing of a global health alert about SARS, fear of the disease led many to cancel travel to the affected regions. In addition to a pronounced dip in tourism, many businesses restricted travel to both Asia and Ontario, Canada. The 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup in soccer had been scheduled to take place in China, but was moved to the United States as a precaution. The 2003 Women’s World Championship in ice hockey that was to be played in Beijing was cancelled outright. Airlines and other tourism-related businesses saw profits decline; some were even forced to lay off workers. Conferences and conventions scheduled for Toronto were cancelled, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars in revenues. Even Chinese food restaurants—from Beijing to New York—reported losses.

The major symptoms of SARS are initially flu-like, including a high fever and dry cough, and in some cases, headaches, diarrhea, stiffness, rash, confusion and loss of appetite also result. Difficulty breathing begins between two and 10 days after infection. Scientists are not yet sure how it is transmitted, but believe that close contact with an infected person is required to contract the disease. SARS is now known to be caused by the SARS coronavirus; a coronavirus is also responsible for some cases of the common cold. Officials believe the disease’s mortality rate is about 10 percent.

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