Are we getting too concerned about SARS?
Is SARS a deadly new epidemic or are people simply falling victim to overheated rhetoric?
That is the question many of us are asking these days, and those who apparently should know - disease specialists - can't agree on the answer, a situation that leads to inevitable uncertainty.
What is known about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is that it is a new variant of a known cold virus, that it is highly contagious and there is only limited treatment available.
Some wonder what all the excitement is about. After all, there have been only a few hundred known fatalities so far worldwide, while in the United States alone there are more than 30,000 deaths from the common flu each year.
The concern of health officials seems to be not so much with current statistics, but the "what if" scenarios that could result if the spread of the disease is not effectively controlled and better treatments fail to materialize.
Part of the problem is that as a new virus, it is unpredictable. Researchers are not even certain they know how it spreads, although face-to-face contact seems to be the primary means. Many questions remain about how the virus works. And we are always fearful of the unknown.
Health officials are concerned about its virulence - it has a mortality rate significantly higher than flu - and the difficulty in containing the highly contagious infection's spread.
The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 - an unusually virulent form of flu that remains something of a mystery - killed perhaps 30 million around the world, including many here in the United States.
That was a different era, however. Travel was much slower and far less widespread, a fact that tended to mitigate its spread. Today, an infected person could fly around the world within hours. That is why world health officials have issued travel warnings and travel authorities are trying to screen for SARS for victims.
A conflict is going on within the health community over whether to issue strong warnings out of the need to quickly control the disease or temper the warnings so there is not a public panic.
But even those who favor a more low-key approach toward the virus do not believe it is something that can be dismissed. Julie Gerberding, director of the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told USA Today, "It would be foolish not to think that this is going to be a serious threat."
We agree with those who say is a bad idea to create unnecessary concern, as some have accused the media of doing. Once SARS is better understood, it may not be the threat that some fear it is now - or effective treatments may be quickly developed. Still, until then, it is best to take the warnings seriously.