Press Releases

2003 Releases

Survey Finds Many Americans Avoiding International Air Travel, Asian Retailers Due to Fear of SARS

For immediate release:  April 29, 2003 

Boston, MA— A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security finds that 17 percent of Americans who have traveled outside of the United States in the past year have avoided international air travel recently due to reports about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). (See Figure 1)

“Even though there have been few cases of SARS in the U.S., concerns about this disease have begun to have an impact on the American public,” said Robert J. Blendon, professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Sixteen percent of the public reported avoiding people they thought may have recently traveled to Asia.  In addition, 14 percent of Americans said they were avoiding Asian restaurants and/or stores.  Other actions taken by the public in response to reports of SARS were using a disinfectant at home or at work (21%), avoiding public events (10%), carrying something to clean objects that may have been in contact with someone who had SARS (9%) and consulting a web site for information about how to protect themselves from SARS (9%).  Despite the widely televised images of people in Asia wearing face masks, very few Americans said they bought a face mask (3%) or talked to a doctor about health issues related to SARS (5%).  (See Figure 1)

Eighty-three percent of Americans said that SARS is a disease that requires quarantine in order to keep it from spreading, and 41 percent knew that people were being quarantined for SARS in the U.S. at the time of the survey.  Fully 94 percent of the public reported that they would agree to be isolated for two or three weeks in a health care facility if they had SARS.  A similar percentage (92%) would agree to be quarantined for up to 10 days in their home if they were exposed to someone who had SARS but did not know if they themselves had the disease.  Only 13 percent of Americans thought that President Bush’s recent executive order adding SARS to the list of diseases for which people can be quarantined was a threat to their personal rights and freedoms. (See Figure 2)

“If the number of cases in the U.S. grows, the public appears to be willing to cooperate with public health officials in order to keep the disease from spreading,” said Blendon.

One in four Americans thought it was likely (5% very, 20% somewhat) that they or someone in their immediate family would contract SARS in the next 12 months.  Americans were more likely to believe that they would contract SARS than to believe they would contract anthrax (3% very, 9% somewhat) or smallpox (3% very, 9% somewhat).  In addition, 32 percent of the public reported being concerned about contracting SARS.

The majority of Americans (92%) knew that SARS is contagious and 82 percent believed that it spread easily (46% very, 35% somewhat).  The majority of the public thought that it was possible to get SARS from being in close contact with someone who has SARS (91%), being on the same airplane with someone who has SARS (78%), eating food that has been prepared by someone who was infected with or exposed to SARS (73%), shaking hands with someone with an active case of the disease (71%), touching objects or surfaces that have been in contact with someone who has SARS (66%), and blood transfusions (62%). (See Figure 3)

If SARS spreads more widely in the US, public concern is likely to escalate due to a number of factors. Eighty-four percent of the public know that there is no vaccine for SARS and one-half (51%) know there is no effective treatment.  In addition, a substantial number of Americans believe that SARS is more deadly than it actually is.  Four in ten Americans said that one-quarter or more of people with SARS die from the disease. The death rate is between six and 10%. Moreover, the majority believe, and the CDC reports, the disease spreads easily through multiple routes of transmission.

Complete survey and graphs are available here: (survey) (graphs)

For more information about SARS, go to

This study was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. The project director is Robert J. Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team also includes Catherine M. DesRoches, John M. Benson, Kathleen Weldon and Liz Mackie of the Harvard School of Public Health and Melissa J. Herrmann of ICR/International Communications Research.  Fieldwork was conducted via telephone by ICR/International Communications Research of Media (PA) between April 11 – 15, 2003.  The survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults age 18 and over. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 3 percentage points.

Possible sources of nonsampling error include nonresponse bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Nonresponse in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases, sample data are weighted to the most recent Census data available from the Current Population Survey for gender, age, race, education, as well as number of adults and number of telephone lines in the household. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing, replicate subsamples, callbacks staggered over times of day and days of the week, and systematic respondent selection within households, are used to ensure that the sample is representative.


For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752