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Unmasking SARS

Unmasking SARS

February 2004

by Natalie Gutierrez

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security works around the clock to protect the nation from terrorists, a physician at the Health Science Center is diligently working on a homeland security of a different kind.

Jan Patterson, M.D., professor of medicine and pathology at the Health Science Center and director of hospital epidemiology for the University Health System and the Audie L. Murphy Division of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, is on a mission to keep the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus and other terrifying diseases from penetrating the nationís borders.

The first SARS cases were reported in Asia in February 2003. Shortly after that, SARS spread to more than 25 countries including the United States. Globally, about 8,000 people were infected and nearly 800 died. In Canada, Toronto was the hardest hit.

Dr. Patterson spent two weeks in Toronto in June 2003 lending her expertise to physicians and staff in the infection control program at North York Hospital, one of several Canadian hospitals that at the time were treating numerous SARS-infected patients. She was among a dozen hospital epidemiologists/infection control experts from across the world flown to Toronto in response to a call from the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

"My role was to help build and restructure the hospitalís infection control program," Dr. Patterson said. She witnessed firsthand the financial, physical and emotional costs of SARS. "Health care workers saw their hospital co-workers become ill and some even die," she said. Wearing protective face masks, even in committee meetings, was a routine practice.

Toronto was removed from the World Health Organizationís travel advisory list, but the city and other areas "are still being very cautious with isolating those with respiratory disease, because of the possibility of relapse," she said. Health officials warned that the virus could re-emerge at any time.

In early January of this year, a man from the Guangdong Province in southeastern China became ill with what health officials determined to be a new strain of the SARS virus. Since then, more new cases have been confirmed in Asia.

Could a SARS crisis happen in the United States? "Yes, it is certainly possible,"
Dr. Patterson said. But she is working to better prepare hospitals for that possibility. "San Antonio is ahead of the game when it comes to preparedness," she said. "With the establishment of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Biomedical Research (CPHPBR) at the Health Science Center under the direction of Ret. Army Maj. Gen. Harold Timboe, M.D., M.P.H., bioterrorism and natural disaster readiness are part of our routine thinking nowadays."

Dr. Patterson has also participated in several hospital and citywide preparedness drills and in public education forums on SARS sponsored by the city and the Health Science Center.

It may be a small world after all when it comes to infectious diseases. But with global cooperation on health issues by physicians like Dr. Patterson, the public can rest easier knowing that the borders will be safer because of it.

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Updated 12/11/14