This contagious respiratory infection was first described on Feb. 26, 2003. World Health Organization (WHO) physician Dr. Carlo Urbani identified SARS as a new disease, diagnosed in a 48-year-old Chinese-American businessman who had traveled from the Guangdong province of China, through Hong Kong, to Hanoi, Vietnam. His infection has been traced back to another guest at the Metropole Hotel. Both guests fell ill and died shortly after becoming infected. Dr. Urbani subsequently died from SARS on March 29, 2003, at the age of 46.
During this time, SARS was spreading around the Pacific Rim, and within 6 weeks of its discovery, it had infected thousands of people around the world, including people in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Schools had closed throughout Hong Kong and Singapore. National tourism economies were affected.
The WHO had identified SARS as a global health threat April 11, 2003, and issued an unprecedented travel warning that advised people not to travel in infected areas. Daily WHO updates tracked the spread of SARS seven days a week. It wasn’t clear whether SARS would become a global pandemic, or would settle into a less aggressive pattern.
The rapid, global public health response helped to stem the spread of the virus, and by June 2003, the epidemic had subsided to the degree that on June 7 the WHO backed off from its daily reports. Nevertheless, even as the number of new cases dwindled, and travel advisories began to be lifted, the sober truth remained: every new case had the potential to spark another outbreak. SARS appears to be here to stay, and to have changed the way that the world responds to infectious diseases in the era of widespread international travel.