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Emergency Preparedness Alerts

Frequently asked questions about SARS and answers from Princeton University Health Services:

  1. What is SARS?
  2. How is it spread?
  3. Should I avoid travel?
  4. How can I decrease my risk?
  5. What should I do if I am returning from a "risk area" or had a SARS contact?
  6. What if I have symptoms?
  7. Where can I get more general information?
  8. What if I have further questions?

What is SARS?

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, is a respiratory infection thought to be caused by a novel coronavirus that probably originated in southern China in November 2002. Since reliable early tests for the virus are still in development, the disease is currently defined by:

  • fever and respiratory symptoms, such as coughing or shortness of breath, in combination with:
    • a history of exposure within the past 10 days to a SARS patient, or
    • travel to an area of significant SARS transmission.

How is it spread?

SARS is primarily spread through droplet infection (such as through coughing or sneezing) to nearby people, usually through face-to-face contact. It is possible that it is spread through other body fluids and, rarely, through microdroplets suspended in the air. Preliminary studies suggest that the virus may survive in the environment for several days. See the FAQs maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for more details.

Should I avoid travel?

Consistent with recommendations from the CDC, the University has lifted its moratorium on sponsored travel to areas that had been most affected by SARS, including mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Toronto.

Given the possibility that SARS could recur, as it did recently in Toronto, or reappear this coming fall or winter, as coronaviruses are known to do, the University will continue to monitor the situation closely.

How can I decrease my risk?

The risk outside of face-to-face contact with someone with SARS is low. While some travelers from areas of risk have worn masks during flights, the CDC has not endorsed this as a necessary precaution. Since the virus may be viable on surfaces for a period of time, frequent hand-washing -- a standard health practice for avoiding many infectious illnesses -- is a reasonable precaution and may be the most important practice in reducing the spread of SARS.

What should I do if I am returning from a "risk area" or had a SARS contact?

The University requests that any of its community members arriving from areas that have been affected by SARS contact Dr. Peter Johnsen to inform Health Services about the travel. If you have no symptoms, Health Services will ask you to check your temperature twice daily for 10 days (thermometers are available at McCosh Health Center) and to report any fever, respiratory symptoms or other signs of SARS-like illness. You will be asked, where feasible, to minimize contact with others for those 10 days.

What if I have symptoms?

If you have had contact with a SARS patient or have been to an area affected by SARS within the past 10 days and develop fever (greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38.0 degrees Celsius), respiratory symptoms or other signs of illness, contact Health Services by phone at (609) 258-3141, or (609) 258-3139 after hours, and inform them of the possible contact. Do not go out into public until you have discussed your symptoms with a clinician.

Where can I get more general information?

The most current information, guidelines and travel advisories can be found at the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) Web sites.

What if I have further questions?

Contact Dr. Peter Johnsen at or (609) 258-4460.

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