Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)

Also known as SARS

Severe acute respiratory syndrome is a viral illness that usually starts with a high fever, followed by a cough and breathing difficulties. Most people will recover fully but some can develop life-threatening respiratory illness.

SARS first appeared as a new disease in Southern China in November 2002, and then over the next few months  spread to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Toronto (Canada), Singapore, Vietnam and other countries. New Zealand reported one probable SARS case in April 2003, with no further cases since then. 

The SARS outbreak ended in July 2003. There are currently no known SARS-affected regions worldwide. However, global surveillance continues by the World Health Organization and other international agencies.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health reports on its website that it has plans in the event of a re-emergence of SARS, in line with the World Health Organization recommendations.


SARS is caused by infection with a strain of the coronavirus, one of a family of viruses that causes the common cold.

The main source of SARS transmission is through close contact with infected individuals. This can be through:

  • Direct contact with the person, their bodily fluids or mucus.
  • Inhaling droplets in the air after an infected person has coughed or sneezed.
  • Touching objects or surfaces contaminated with infectious droplets (and then touching your nose, mouth or eyes).

During the incubation period (two to 10 days) and early stages (one to two days) of the illness, the risk of infecting other people seems to be very low. People who have caught the virus are most infectious to others after they become visibly ill, e.g. when they show the full range of symptoms.


In general SARS begins with a fever greater than 38 degrees Celsius. Other symptoms may include:

  • headaches
  • an overall feeling of discomfort
  • body aches
  • diarrhoea
  • some people also experience mild respiratory symptoms
  • after two to seven days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough and have trouble breathing.

The majority of people are unwell for six to seven days with an illness that resembles the flu, and then they recover completely. However, it can develop into a life-threatening pneumonia-like illness in some of those infected. Most deaths have occurred in people over the age of 40 who have existing conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease.


Even in the absence of a SARS outbreak, it is still advisable for anyone returning from international travel who is unwell, with fever and/or respiratory tract symptoms and/or diarrhoea, to seek medical advice, as they may have contracted some other illness that requires attention.

Phone first

As many illnesses can be infectious, it is recommended to phone your doctor’s rooms before going in to advise them of your symptoms. Be sure to explain that you have recently been overseas. This allows them to take precautions on your arrival.

You can also phone Healthline free (within New Zealand) on 0800 611 116 for advice. Calls are answered by registered nurses or other health professionals.


People with severe cases may be admitted to hospital and will be treated in the same way as pneumonia.


There is currently no vaccine to protect against SARS. Preventive measures against SARS are similar to those you would use to avoid getting or spreading influenza, and involve general hygiene measures, such as:

  • regular hand washing
  • frequent disinfecting of surfaces
  • as far as possible, avoiding close contact with infected people.

In the event of a re-emergence of SARS, specific advice and travel advisories would be issued by the NZ Ministry of Health or other agencies.

Learn more

SARS Family Doctor NZ For official travel advisories (disease alerts and other travel issues)
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Mayo Clinic
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Medline Plus
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) Factsheet Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Credits: Editorial team. Last reviewed: 19 Jan 2015