Almost half of Americans think that within months this country is likely to face a SARS (search) epidemic similar to that in Asia, an Associated Press poll found.

Most people, though, aren't worried they will be exposed to the disease now.

A top federal health official responded that the public fears don't surprise him. If cases are mishandled, the disease could grow much worse in the United States, he said.

While almost half, 47 percent, said they thought it was at least somewhat likely the country would face such an epidemic, only 8 percent believed such a problem was "very likely," according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

Dr. James Hughes, director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases (search), urged the public to be vigilant about the threat of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

"I'm glad that people are paying attention to what is going on," Hughes said Thursday. "This is a new disease — an excellent example of an emerging global microbial threat that has been recently recognized, has spread with stunning speed from country to country and continent to continent.

"All it would take is one of those cases not promptly recognized or isolated," said Hughes, whose center is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search). Still, he added, "I don't think it would get away from us" the way it has in some other countries.

Blacks were more likely than whites and women more likely than men to think an epidemic is likely in this country.

"If somebody comes into the country who's infected and they don't know it, they could spread it everywhere," said Katrina Firth, a 41-year-old wife and mother of three from Spanaway, Wash.

There are 56 probable cases of SARS in the United States, Hughes said, and another 233 suspected cases, most of which have not yet been tested. Cases have turned up in 38 states. No one in the United States has died from SARS.

Worldwide, there have been more than 5,600 cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease, with at least 394 deaths. Many of those cases have originated in China and other parts of Asia.

People in this country are not that worried they personally will be exposed to the disease, the poll found. About a fourth said they were worried that they or someone in their family would be exposed to SARS, slightly less than in other recent polls. Only one in 20 was very worried, according to the poll of 1,014 conducted April 25-30. The poll has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In September 2002, a Gallup Poll found just over half of Americans were very or somewhat worried about the West Nile virus, twice the level of concern about SARS in this poll.

"I hear very little about it," Roger Wallace, a retired professor from Kalamazoo, Mich., said of SARS. "It's something that shows up in the newspapers and on television. It doesn't seem to affect us out here in the Midwest."

Four in 10 said they were much more likely to contact a doctor, nurse or health center if they had symptoms like fever, a bad cough or trouble breathing. Physicians groups report they have scattered reports from doctors about people calling in with fears they might have SARS, usually from those who recently traveled to China, Hong Kong, Toronto or other reported problem areas.

Officials with the CDC in Atlanta told lawmakers recently that the center is receiving a record number of phone calls from members of the public concerning SARS.

The poll found that 2 per cent of the overall population have changed air travel plans in this country because of the SARS reports.

"If people are planning travel," Hughes said, "they should be current on the status of advisories and alerts to destinations they have in mind."

Despite public concerns about the disease, many in this country still view it as a distant problem.

"I don't think about it," said 66-year-old oil worker Jerry Roberson of McAllen, Texas. "This is something that happens over in China."