Of the 1,192 participants in this study, approximately 16.1% had probable secondary or tertiary transmission occurring within the household, 26.6% were hospital workers with nosocomial infections, 14.3% were Amoy Gardens patients, and 4.9% were cross-infected inpatients. In 20.1%, SARS might have been contracted when the participant came in contact with a SARS patient who was a nonhousehold member, which may have occurred in a hospital or community setting. SARS may have developed in 17.8% after they visited Amoy Gardens, hospitals or clinics, or affected countries. This computation leaves 9.9% as community-acquired cases of an unknown source.
The percentage of patients related to Amoy Gardens (someone who lived there or visited there) is 18.5% (221/1,192). The percentage of patients with a hospital connection (hospital workers, inpatients, and visitors) is 44.5% (530/1,192). The proportion of unknown community-acquired SARS infection among all SARS cases in this study was considerably lower than the proportion of nosocomial infection, which suggests that preventing hospital outbreaks is essential.
Of the 330 undefined transmissions, 44.2% of the transmissions occurred through hospital visitors. Another study on household transmission also indicated that hospital visits were a significant risk factor for predicting household secondary infection (9
). Therefore, the severity of future outbreaks, if any, would depend on the ability of the hospital system to control hospital cross-infection and infection of visitors.
Visits to mainland China were associated with SARS transmission, even after adjusting for other variables. Cross-border transmission played a role in the epidemic; although the absolute percentage is not high among the 1,192 case-patients (3.4% or 41/1,192), it is substantially larger among the undefined source group (13.03%). With a case-control design, we could not establish whether this 13.03% was associated with an inflated risk. Cross-border communication and prevention, such as those set in place (temperature screening and health declaration), need to be enforced strictly and consistently. Almost 70% of the 41 participants who visited mainland China had fever onset on or before April 1 (i.e., the early phase of the epidemic) (5
). None of them had onset after May 3, which is understandable as visiting mainland China was perceived as a high risk by the general public in the late phase of the epidemic (5
The variables related to social contacts (with medical personnel or hospital visitors, with persons with influenzalike symptoms, and with persons living in a housing estate with a reported SARS patient) were not significant. These findings should be interpreted with caution. On one hand, these case-patients should not be stigmatized. On the other, the results may have been confounded because all SARS cases contracted this way were excluded from the analysis. However, confirming that these variables could not account for transmission of the undefined source cases can be useful.
Evidence does not indicate that frequent visits to crowded places were associated with a higher likelihood of community-acquired infection. This finding may remove panic that arose during the epidemic, and daily life need not change as much as it had. Hong Kong is a densely populated city, and it had a large number of SARS cases. The number of community-acquired cases in less populated cities should be much lower than that of Hong Kong. This finding should be interpreted with care as >90% of the general public wore face masks in public places, and >85% avoided visits to public places during the epidemic in Hong Kong (5
). Although visiting the Amoy Gardens was a risk factor, Amoy Gardens might be the only place where such a large-scale SARS outbreak was attributable to contamination of the environment.
We now have some empirical evidence to suggest that wearing a face-mask frequently in public places, frequent handwashing, and disinfecting one's living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission (adjusted OR 0.58 to 0.36). The effectiveness of mask use was controversial (6
). In another study, the prevalence of these three public health preventive public health measures increased significantly from March 21, 2003, to April 1, 2003, (i.e., wearing masks 11.5%–84.3%; frequent hand washing 61.5%–95.1%; home disinfection 36.4%–80%) (5
). These practices played an essential role in limiting the spread of the virus in the community in Hong Kong.
That disinfecting the living quarter is a strong protective factor has a particular relevance. The reason behind the significance is not completely clear. During the epidemic, the Hong Kong government released frequent announcements of public interest to promote home disinfection using 1:99 bleach water solutions. Most respondents who disinfected their living quarters were probably following the government’s suggestion. Keeping in mind that probable secondary cases had already been removed from the analysis, such protective effect is not referring to the effects that disinfecting the quarter reduced the chance of secondary infection. Environmental contamination (suspected to be related to the sewage system) was reported in the Amoy Gardens, and similar environmental contamination probably did not occur in other places. Such contamination-related infections might be on a small scale and not been noticed. In such circumstances, home disinfection might reduce the risk for transmission. The finding suggests that, in addition to the droplet theory, the fomites theory could not be dismissed.
Our study has a few limitations as well as strengths. First, approximately 72% of all SARS case-patients were included in the study (excluding patients whose contact numbers were incorrect or not available; approximately 78% of those with a valid contact telephone number were included, and the refusal rate was about 10%). The sample size was reasonably large. Second, data were collected retrospectively. Most of the data were, however, collected from the participants within 1 month after onset of fever. Since contracting the disease is a major life event for the patient and family, they should be able to recall whether such factual and benchmark behaviors had been practiced.
The study also has strength of matching for age, sex, and reference time of the behaviors in question, so that both the case and control in a pair were referring to relevant behaviors that occurred within the same 10-day period before the date of onset of fever of the patient. Third, some questions, such as those about disinfection of households or visiting crowed places were nonspecific (the questions asked were “Whether your living quarter had been disinfected thoroughly” and “Whether you had visited crowded places”). Different participants might have defined the terms differently. Further, a number of patients were unable to answer the questions, and a household member who was “most familiar with the household situation” was invited to serve as a proxy. The responses obtained from these informants were compared to those obtained from the patients themselves, and no statistical significance was obtained (p = 0.199 to 0.854) to all variables, except the variable about visiting the Amoy Gardens (p < 0.05).
One particular strength of the study in its evaluation of the three public health measures is that transmissions due to various known sources of infection had been removed as much as possible. In conclusion, the study shows that public health measures may have contributed substantially to the control of SARS epidemic in Hong Kong.