Prepare Now for the Return of SARS

Every winter, millions of people around the world suffering from flu-like illnesses visit their doctor. Some patients actually are infected with flu; others have colds or other respiratory infections, many of which also peak in the winter. This coming flu season there will be a new twist: physicians will have to be aware that hidden among these patients could be a small number with SARS, a respiratory disease that is also likely to be seasonal and whose early symptoms are almost indistinguishable from those of the flu.

If even a few SARS cases are present among the millions of flu-like cases that will appear this autumn, it will be critical to identify and isolate them to prevent a repeat of the epidemic that scourged China earlier this year. But among the vast number of flu and other cases, finding these cases will be difficult. Paradoxically, the best way for health authorities to prepare for a possible return of SARS this winter is to make special efforts to reduce the spread of flu and speed its diagnosis.

This may be a tough sell politically. Unfortunately, if predictably, the remarkable success of efforts around the world to control the transmission of SARS--particularly in Taiwan and mainland China--has led some to question whether the threat of SARS was ``overblown.'' But the very reason we have the luxury to ask such questions is that the spread of the infection was contained by exceedingly stringent measures.

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