Press Releases

2003 Releases

Survey Finds SARS Worries Down: But One-Third of Americans Think SARS Made Canada Travel Unsafe

For immediate release:  May 21, 2003 

Boston, MA – A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security finds that concern about a terrorist attack using smallpox decreased sharply from a high of 51% of the public reporting that they were very or somewhat concerned in December 2002 to 28% in May 2003. Over that same period the share of Americans who said they would take the smallpox vaccine if it were available to them dropped from 61% to 45%.  Despite media stories about serious side effects from the smallpox vaccine, the majority of Americans (74%) continue to support the Bush Administration’s plan for voluntary vaccination of doctors and nurses.

“Though fewer Americans say they would take the smallpox vaccine, they still want their health care professionals to be prepared in the event of a biological attack,” said Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Public Response to SARS

The percent of Americans who thought it was very or somewhat likely that they or an immediate family member would contract SARS in the next 12 months decreased from 25% in April 2003 to 17% in May 2003.  About one-third of Americans (35%) believed that SARS had made it unsafe to travel to Canada.  Canadian economists estimate that the SARS crisis could produce a net loss of up to $1.5 billion dollars as a result of lost tourism and business related travel.[i] The World Health Organization lifted its travel advisory on Toronto on May 14, after the survey was completed.

Between April 2003 and May 2003, the percent of the public who said they were avoiding Asian restaurants and stores due to worries about SARS fell from 14% to 9%.  Likewise, the percentage of Americans avoiding people who they thought had recently traveled to Asia fell from 16% in April 2003 to 11% in May 2003.  Other actions taken in response to reports of SARS included using a disinfectant at home or work (16%), consulting a website (8%), avoiding public events (7%), talking with a physician about health issues related to SARS (6%), carrying something to clean objects that may have been in contact with someone who had SARS (6%), and purchasing a face mask (3%).  Among those who had traveled internationally in the past 12 months, 9% reported avoiding international air travel due to concerns about SARS. 

Airline and government policies to contain the spread of SARS

Seventy-one percent of the public said that showing a video on international flights that describes SARS and what to do in the event of exposure to the disease would be helpful.  Only 26% thought it would needlessly alarm people.

The survey also asked about the use of face masks during air travel as a precaution against SARS.  Sixty-one percent of Americans said they would want to use a face mask on a domestic flight if another passenger were coughing a lot and the airline made these masks available.  Seventy-three percent would want a face mask on an international flight if there were someone coughing on the plane.

“If cases of SARS continue to grow internationally, many Americans are going to want airlines to show that they are taking precautions to protect travelers,” said Blendon.

Eight-four percent of Americans knew that SARS was a disease that required people to be quarantined in order to prevent further spread.  The vast majority said they would agree to isolation if diagnosed with the disease (95%) or quarantine (93%) if health officials determined it was necessary.

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 Raleigh 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 May 2 - 6, 2003.  The survey was conducted with a nationally representative sample of 1,025 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 see:

Figure 1  -- Concerns About Smallpox
Figure 2 -- Precautions Against SARS
Top Line (PDF File)


[i] SARS Leaves a Scar on Toronto.  Business Week Online.  Accessed at

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