Frontline World

Hong Kong - Chasing the Virus, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Chasing the Virus"

Tracing Disease Outbreaks

On the Trail of a Killer

Scientists spell out their approach to SARS

International Health Organizations, Search for a Quick Cure, Economic Fallout



Epidemics Through Time

By Kelly Whalen

Get and update on infectious diseases today. GOIntroduction

When a mysterious pneumonia showed up in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in November 2002, few could have predicted the global crisis it would cause. The outbreak is now known, of course, as severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

SARS, a coronavirus believed to have jumped from animals to humans, is something relatively rare -- a life-threatening disease that spreads from one person to another through casual contact. The disease has reached more than two dozen countries since the first case was identified. By June 2003, more than 8,400 people worldwide had been infected by SARS and more than 780 had died.

Although the death count pales when compared with outbreaks of other diseases throughout history, the swift spread of SARS raises strong concerns about the vulnerability we face in this age of globalization. During the initial months of the SARS outbreak, newspapers predicted that it was "the next AIDS." More doomsday prophecies followed as the realization set in that a deadly infectious virus can move from one corner of the world to another in less than a day, simply by hitching a ride on an unsuspecting airplane passenger.

Yet, even though illnesses can infect populations faster than ever before, the spread of infectious disease always has been linked to an increasing number of people moving around the world. Smallpox followed explorers during the age of exploration, and tuberculosis surfaced in overpopulated city centers during the Industrial Revolution. In this interactive world atlas, trace the spread of the SARS crisis and other key epidemics throughout history.

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Sources include: World Health Organization; Brent Hoff and Carter Smith III (and Charles H. Calisher as consulting editor), "Mapping Epidemics: A Historical Atlas of Disease," New York: Franklin Watts, a division of Grolier Publishing, 2000; Sheldon Watts, "Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism," New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997; Howard Markel and Stephen Boyle, "The Epidemic Scorecard," The New York Times, April 30, 2003; Rick Weiss, "War on Disease," National Geographic, Feb. 1, 2002; Robert Glass, "AIDS Is Becoming a Global Health Problem," Associated Press, Dec. 17, 1983; "World War II Hepatitis Outbreak Was Biggest in History," Associated Press, April 16, 1987; Gary Gernhart, "A Forgotten Enemy: PHS's Fight Against the 1918 Influenza Pandemic," Public Health Reports, U.S. Government Printing Office, Nov. 1, 1999.

Kelly Whalen is a writer and documentary producer based in Oakland, California.

Producer: Angela Morgenstern; Designed by: Susan Harris, Fluent Studios; see full web credits.