DAVID L. HEYMANN: PATHOGEN PATROL
Late last spring World Health Organization officials talked about putting severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, "back in the box" before it could become endemic in China and the other countries to which it had spread. The virus infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 800 last year. But so far this season, it had caused just a handful of possible cases by mid-January, with only two confirmed, one the result of a laboratory accident. If SARS has indeed been tamed, without a vaccine or any effective drug treatment, it will be a triumph for the good old-fashioned public health tactics of surveillance and infection control.
"Identify cases, isolate, contact tracing, and when contacts get sick, [do it] all over again" is the not so secret formula for containing disease outbreaks, according to David L. Heymann, the veteran pathogen fighter who led WHO's response to SARS last year as executive director of the agency's communicable diseases division. Whether it's SARS, smallpox or polio, the fundamentals of stopping infectious disease are the same, he says: find it and break its chain of transmission. He is not declaring victory against SARS just yet, though. Only another full year of surveillance will tell whether the virus has become endemic, he says, "so we need to have the mechanisms in place to detect this one and to detect any new one that emerges, too."
This article was originally published with the title A Strategy of Containment.