Communication is key to successful U.S. SARS quarantine

December 01, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky.-Good communication with the public is key to a successful quarantine for severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, says a report submitted today to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public education and support for quarantine are essential to high rates of compliance with voluntary quarantine, and communication plays a key role, according to the report from the University of Louisville's Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law.

"We found that having a single, authoritative spokesperson and regular communication channels were extremely important to the success of SARS quarantines," said Mark Rothstein, who supervised preparation of the report at the request of the CDC.

Rothstein's team examined events during the SARS epidemic last winter and spring in Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. About 8,000 people were infected with SARS, with 780 fatalities in more than 25 countries. "It could have been worse without aggressive public health measures."

SARS was a new virus that struck unexpectedly and the countries affected had little time to plan a response, Rothstein said.

To combat the epidemic, the countries studied in the report imposed large-scale quarantines and the vast majority of people took part voluntarily. "Obtaining and enforcing court orders for quarantine would have been a logistical nightmare and that's why communication was so important in obtaining the support of the people."

The 160-page report also discusses ways in which lessons learned from the SARS outbreak can help guide U.S. public health policy. These include increasing infrastructure capacity, expanding training for public health professionals and coordinating emergency response measures at all levels of government and the private sector.

"The purpose of our report is to highlight the successes abroad and point out the problem areas," he said. "The U.S. response to an infectious disease outbreak should be swift and effective while causing as little social and economic disruption as possible."

U of L's Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law conducts interdisciplinary research in emerging areas of bioethics, health sciences, public health, law, and related fields, with special attention to relevant legislative and regulatory issues. It is one of two CDC Collaborating Centers for Public Health Law.

The entire report, "Quarantine and Isolation: Lessons Learned from SARS," is available online at

University of Louisville

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