As reported by the The Hartford Courant, February 15, 2008.

Virus Contained, But It Could Return

By Ann Marie Somma

When SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, surfaced in southern China in late 2002, it quickly killed nearly 800 people in east Asia and Canada, prompting fears of a horrible contagion.

No one knew what caused the outbreak of the contagious respiratory illness. It spread quickly, infecting some 8,000 people worldwide and terrifying millions. But by July 2003, the World Health Organization proclaimed the virus was contained. Some five years later, SARS hardly makes news. What happened to the virus?

The virus is still here, a state health official says.

"It's hiding," said Kevin Dieckhaus, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Connecticut Health Center. "There is always the risk of the epidemic coming back."

Dieckhaus said there is still no vaccine for SARS, and no specific treatment. Research continues on the virus. Research scientists have identified the Chinese horseshoe bat as a carrier of SARS. People in Asia eat bats or use bat feces in home-spun medicinal cures for anxiety, asthma and kidney problems.

When SARS exploded on the scene in 2002, it was a frightening mystery. No one had any idea where the virus originated. All they knew was it was here, virulent and apparently unstoppable.

Headlines recorded outbreaks and casualties in some 30 countries, including Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. Victims complained of fever, chills, muscle aches and diarrhea. With no known vaccine against the virus, many died within days.

The World Health Organization put out global alerts. Thousands were quarantined. Streets in Asian cities were desolate. Airline flights to Asia were empty. People wore surgical masks in public to guard against inhaling the airborne virus.

It seemed like the world was facing a global mass killer, the first pandemic of the 21st century. At the time, public health officials believed SARS was transmitted from an animal host to people living in Guangdong Province in southern China in 2002.

It became a worldwide health scare in February 2003 after an American businessman traveling from China came down with pneumonia-like symptoms on a flight to Singapore that month. The businessman died days later in hospital in Hanoi.

Within two years, however, the SARS brush fire had burned itself out, ending the outbreak.

Some good news came out of the SARS outbreak in 2003. It taught public health officials a lot about disease quarantine and infection-control techniques, which kept the virus from spreading, Dieckhaus said.

But that doesn't mean it won't return.

"It's one of many illnesses that are out there. It has the potential to reactive itself," Dieckhaus said.