Illinois prepared to fight SARS

By Gus Bode

As monkeypox has made its debut on the national spotlight and the West Nile virus has pushed its way back into media coverage, one infectious disease that provoked conversation during the spring has received less attention. Just don’t tell that to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome remains under close surveillance in Illinois. The state’s public health department is watching potential SARS cases through its infectious disease surveillance system – the same system that is keeping track of monkeypox and the West Nile virus.

According to the World Health Organization, SARS was first carried out of southern China in late November 2002. Since then, there have been 8,465 SARS cases reported worldwide – 5,326 have been in China alone – with 801 reported deaths worldwide.

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SARS in the United States has caused 408 cases spread over 41 states. California has reported the most cases with 77, and New York follows with 50 cases. No one in the United States has died from disease.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said SARS has resulted in 14 suspected cases and two probable cases reported in Illinois. Ten of the suspected cases and both probable cases are located in the suburban Chicago area. No cases have been reported in the city. The last two known SARS cases in Illinois were both reported May 6 in the Chicago suburbs.

The Centers for Disease Control said the primary way the disease is spread is by person-to-person contact. This includes touching other people’s skin or contaminated objects and then making contact with the eyes, nose or mouth. It is also possible SARS can be spread through the air.

The secret weapon in Illinois’ statewide surveillance system is the work of health departments at the local level. The state department receives reports about people whose illnesses may be related to SARS from regional state department offices and local health departments.

The state department works with local branches such as the Jackson County Heath Department in Murphysboro to identify, follow up on and monitor as many suspected or probable SARS cases as needed.

Carla Griffin, director of nursing at the Jackson County Health Department, said her department jointly works with the state public health department in Springfield and its regional office in Marion. Griffin said the decision of which office to contact depends on the severity of the situation.

“Depending on the situation, sometimes we report information to the regional office and sometimes we report it straight to Springfield,” Griffin said. “When it’s something like a suspected SARS case, we’d be on the phone immediately to someone in Springfield.”

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Griffin said there have been no confirmed SARS cases in Jackson County. Yet, that has not stopped a trickle of phone calls from area citizens concerned with SARS.

“With anything like this that comes into the public press and comes with a lot of information made available, we always get calls from worry warts,” Griffin said.

She said part of the reason why the county’s health department has received some unnecessary phone calls is that diseases such as SARS start with vague, flu-like symptoms.

The CDC said SARS symptoms begin with a fever more than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The CDC also lists other symptoms such as headache, overall discomfort and body aches. Mild respiratory symptoms, such as a dry cough and breathing difficulty, may occur after two to seven days.

Griffin said another reason the county health department has heard some false alarms is that some people do not consider another criteria for SARS – travel.

“With SARS, one of the distinguishing things is there has to be travel to endemic areas and contact with someone who’s diagnosed,” Griffin said. “They didn’t travel to Hong Kong. They haven’t been to Toronto. They haven’t been in contact with someone who is a suspect or probable case of SARS.”

Although local health departments study and eliminate possible risks, they could never treat possible cases without the help of local health care providers. In turn, medical service centers need to hear information of symptoms to look for from local health departments. Griffin said the Jackson County Health Department is accessible to local physicians and clinics on a 24-hour basis.

“Communicable disease surveillance in the community is something that we do on an ongoing basis,” Griffin said. “As these new topics come up, whether it’s SARS or monkeypox or West Nile, it’s just a matter of getting information to the frontline health care providers so they know what to be looking for.

“In turn, we’re interested and need to be informed as soon as they have a suspicion.”

Reporter Burke Wasson can be reached at [email protected]

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