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SARS survivors continue to suffer mental health problems, study finds

December 16, 2009 |  7:00 am

Before swine flu and bird flu, there was SARS.

Sars As you may recall, severe acute respiratory syndrome was the scary virus of 2003. It caused fever, headaches, body aches, pneumonia and diarrhea, among other symptoms. SARS originated in Asia and spread to more than two dozen countries on four continents before it was contained. Nearly 8,100 people got SARS during the outbreak, and 774 people died, according to the World Health Organization.

Whatever happened to the survivors?

After one year, patients’ physical symptoms had improved greatly, but their mental health had deteriorated. A group of researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong checked back with all the SARS survivors they could find in one district of the city and found that psychiatric problems persisted even four years later.

The researchers assessed 233 former patients through interviews and questionnaires. They determined that 42.5% had “active psychiatric illnesses,” including post traumatic stress disorder, depression, somatoform pain disorder, panic disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

In addition, 40.3% had chronic fatigue syndrome. These former SARS patients were more likely than others to have ongoing psychiatric problems, the researchers reported in Tuesday’s edition of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Among the SARS survivors, many who were working in hospitals at the time of the outbreak have abandoned their careers in medical care.

“The persistence of psychiatric morbidities among the SARS survivors who participated in our study was alarming,” they wrote. “Because new infectious diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate and pose a global threat for pandemics, there should be better preparation in public health strategies for dealing with … the long-term potential mental health complications.”

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: These ballerinas-in-training in Hong Kong wore masks to protect themselves from a SARS outbreak in 2003. Credit: Vincent Yu / Associated Press