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severe acute respiratory syndrome: a serious, highly contagious illness with symptoms like pneumonia
'The mystery virus known as Sars flew to Toronto late in February inside the lungs of a 78-year-old woman who had stayed at the same Hong Kong hotel as a sick doctor from Guangdong, China. She died of severe acute respiratory syndrome on 5 March, but not before infecting four other members of her family.'The Guardian 7 April 2003
SARS (or Sars) is the name being used to describe this pneumonia-like disease which first appeared in southern China in November 2002, spreading to Hong Kong and Vietnam in late February 2003. Through air and land travel, it is now spreading to other countries, including Canada and the US. By mid-April, SARS had already infected more than 3,000 people in over 20 countries. Symptoms include high temperature, dry coughing and difficulty in breathing.
the disease is mainly spread by contact with an infected person, especially through droplets exhaled by coughing and sneezing
The current theory is that, like the common cold, SARS is caused by a coronavirus, a virus which can spread quickly but for which there is no cure. Coronaviruses look like coronas or halos when viewed with a microscope, and can cause a variety of illnesses, including inflammation of the liver or digestive system, and respiratory infections in animals and people.
The disease is mainly spread by contact with an infected person, especially through droplets exhaled by coughing and sneezing, so the majority of those initially infected were hospital staff or family members of people who had fallen ill. Health authorities are now investigating whether the disease may be airborne or spread through shared water or sewerage systems, and therefore significantly more contagious.
There is worldwide concern about this disease, with travellers being strongly advised not to go to Hong Kong and Guangdong (where the disease is believed to have originated). Manufacturers of safety products have seized a marketing opportunity and are currently advertising a SARS protection range of masks, gloves, etc, designed to reassure those who feel they are at risk.
SARS, short for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is of course an acronym – a word coined by taking the initial letters in a phrase and using them as a new word. Acronyms are distinguished from abbreviations by being pronounced as words rather than as a series of letters (compare for example: BBC, an abbreviation, and VAT, which is used both as an acronym and an abbreviation). The process of acronym formation in English is often not as straightforward as simply combining the initial letters in a sequence of words, and can be influenced by many other factors, including orthography and ease of pronunciation. Often a name of a particular concept is chosen specially because it gives a suitable acronym. For example, many years ago the term Beginners' All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code was chosen for a computer programming language simply because it gave the acronym BASIC.
This article was first published on 14th April 2003.