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Rigorous public health measures — including the communication of risk to the public — are crucial in efforts to control the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), according to the first major epidemiological study of the epidemic.

The study, which examines data from the first nine weeks of Hong Kong's SARS epidemic, concludes that reducing the time between the onset of symptoms and quarantining in hospital is one of the key factors in limiting the spread of the disease. And it attributes the fall in the number of new SARS cases — below 20 per day by the end of April — to such public health interventions.

"The epidemic has demonstrated the need for communication of risk which will inform and warn the public, in a way that will improve personal protection, without inducing high levels of anxiety and fear, as an essential part of epidemic control," the researchers write in The Lancet.

"A change in risk perception would potentially lead to an increase in early reporting of symptoms as well as improvements in hygiene and prevention of transmission," they add.

The research team — comprising scientists from Imperial College, United Kingdom, the University of Hong Kong and the Department of Health in Hong Kong — also report that the fatality rate from SARS is considerably higher than previously thought. They estimate that rates are now 43 to 55 per cent for those aged over 60, and 7 to 13 per cent for those under 60.

Link to research paper in The Lancet PDF document (requires free registration)