Study Indicates That SARS Virus May Be Airborne
The SARS virus -- a respiratory tract infection that last year sickened 8,400 people in 29 countries and caused more than 900 deaths -- can spread through the air, not just through close physical contact with people infected with the virus, as previously thought, according to a study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Washington Post reports. The study analyzed an outbreak last year at Amoy Gardens, an apartment complex in Hong Kong where more than 300 residents became infected after a man with SARS used a resident's bathroom. Some health officials initially thought the unusual spread of the virus throughout the building might have been caused by rodents, and a World Health Organization investigation attributed the spread to the complex's malfunctioning plumbing system. However, after conducting a computer analysis of the patterns of where and when people became infected, the building's ventilation and plumbing systems and air currents in and around the apartment buildings, Ignatius Yu of Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong and colleagues concluded that the virus probably moved from the bathroom the sick man used through an air shaft. They also believe the virus then spread to neighboring buildings via a northeast wind and entered those buildings' air shafts. Other experts said the analysis "provided a plausible explanation" that could account for the unusual outbreak at Amoy Gardens, as well as several other situations in which people became infected without close direct contact with people with SARS, including outbreaks in a Hong Kong hotel, a Toronto hospital waiting room and on an airplane, the Post reports. However, they agree that most frequently, SARS is spread by direct physical contact. Yu said the study shows "future efforts at prevention and control must take into consideration the potential for airborne spread of this virus" (Stein, Washington Post, 4/22). An abstract of the study is available online.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.