Real-life imitates art if we look at the world’s current epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and remember the Dustin Hoffman motion picture Outbreak which was about an animal virus that infected a whole city, bringing uncontrolled death in its wake.
While this new and still virulent epidemic which faces everyone in the world (deaths have been reported in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Canada, among other nations) pales in comparison to the flu epidemic that followed World War One around 1918 or the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s, it is currently the number one threat in the world, more so than the Nile virus of last year (which may return this year when mosquito season arrives).
Like the virus in Outbreak this one appears to have jumped from animals to humans. The virus is from the same family as diseases found in dogs, ferrets and rats. It is also similar to the virus which causes the common cold (which so far has no real cure).
Microscopic viruses like those that cause AIDS or SARS are highly resistant to body defenses which normally encase the invader and either kill it directly to render it a harmless mummy, all wrapped up in white blood cells or anti-bodies. SARS is capable of repairing itself when attacked. Like AIDS it is made up or RNA, which is a single strain chain of molecules unlike human DNA which is a double strain (or helix).
Unlike AIDS, the distant cousins of the SARS virus already have some therapies provided by veterinary medicine, thus medical doctors may quickly formulate the anti-virus (what Cuba Gooding referred to as “orange juice” in the movie Outbreak) or at least a vaccine that helps keep uninfected people from contracting the lethal disease.
Vaccines are small doses of dead or low powered mutation strains of the actual virus, that help teach your body how to fight off the real thing. They provide a template for your white blood cells and anti-bodies so that should you catch the full virus your own defenses can contain it faster and better than without the vaccine.
SARS resembles the flu, with body aches, head cold, fever and eventually bronchial congestion that turns into pneumonia. Pneumonia, which I’ve had several times, is basically heavily infected phlegm or histamine related fluids (the stuff that runny noses produce) that clogs up and basically hardens into one of the many “lobes” (sections) of your lung. The Pneumonia I had in the past, and the most common variety, is bacterial pneumonia which can easily be controlled with drugs such as Erythromycin or Sodium Penicillin G. These drugs, as a general rule, inhibit the reproduction mechanism of the bacterium. They are, for use of a parable, a birth control pill for germs. Eventually these germs die of old age. This drug therapy, in conjunction with breathing in a mist of saline and water via the mouth to loosen the congested areas in the lungs, which you then cough out, is normally a fast, tried and test method. Viral pneumonia, such as that produced by SARS, does not respond to this type of conventional drug therapy.
The medical community is probably relying on drugs to control secondary infections such as meningitis or bed sores, inhalation therapy (saline mist sucked in through the mouth) and then they hope your body defenses do the rest of the job. This is primary way the less common and less lethal viral pneumonia of the past have been treated.
In the case of SARS the virus is so potent that, like in the movie Outbreak doctors, nurses, therapists and possibly even lab technicians are contracting SARS from those patients having the strain closes to primary source. The cases that have reached the United States, which have thus far been more benign as no deaths have reach reached this country, are third, fourth or fifth generation. Reaching our area and people long after the virus has mutated or become less potent, because the victims are further removed from the primary infection source which was probably an animal or group of animals in a section of Hong Kong. Possibly from a meal or a jumping of the virus from a live animal to a human host, who then infected others nearby. Eventually some of those infected people with first or second generation SARS were hospitalized and the medical community also fell prey to the virus in a very strong form.
Pneumonia is one of the most common forms of death in sickly or the elderly. When weakened by old age or disease the body does not flush the lungs as readily as a young, healthily person. Hence pulmonary edema (liquid in the lungs) occurs and if that becomes infected and your body has no strength or resistance and you can die from complications. This is common and happens daily around the world. This type of condition, however, is not normally aggravated by an external virus such as the highly potent and anti-body resistant strain that SARS comes from, thus we are seeing these extra and more public incidents being reported with some concern by authories.
In parts of Japan, China and Hong Kong it is often common for people on crowded rush hour trains to wear surgical face mask to lower their susceptibility to the common cold or typical flu virus that runs the world each year near wintertime. This, along with washing the hands, is a good measure for those in this country who may find themselves around highly crowded areas with little ventilation, such as public transportation in the big cities.
If you experience a fever, body aches and a strong head cold you should probably see a physician quickly, keep warm, stay rested, eat well and cough out any congestion you can. Anti-histamines may not be a good idea. These are the cold pills and non-prescription sleeping pills that make your drowsy, which are not the same as the little red ones which are a dicongestant. Anti-histamines (the drowsy cold pills) dry up the fluids and can possibly help promote pneumonia, thus at this time don’t take these without advise of a doctor who is also treating you with other medications and possibly even inhalation therapy.
The chances of getting virulent SARS outside of the Asian area or contact with those who have recently travailed to any Asian country is very low, but no on should take chances. The best and only defense against catching SARS is wearing face masks and washing the hands regularly. The best and only defense against a virus that seems to resemble SARS is getting prompt medical consultation, staying inside, resting, coughing out the phlegm, eating as often as you feel hungry and possibly avoiding anti-histamines this time around unless a doctor tells you otherwise. If you start to feel better, don’t take chances. Continue to stay inside, in bed for a little while longer. If you don’t get better, call your doctor for further advise and consultation.
Earl R. Dingman is a Technology Editor here at Issues. He was trained as a field medic (91 Alpha 10) at the U.S. Army Medical Training Center, Brooke Army General Hospital, Fort Sam Houston, TX, during the Viet Nam era. While at Fort Sam Houston he contracted and was treated for bacterial pneumonia at Brooke Army Hopsital.