Objectives: To examine the professional moral duty of health care workers (HCWs) in the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
Methods: Descriptive discussion of media reports, analysis of ethical principles and political decisions discussed in the outbreak, with particular emphasis on the events in mainland China and Taiwan.
Results: There were differences in the way that Taiwan and mainland China responded to the SARS epidemic, however, both employed techniques of hospital quarantine. After early policy mistakes in both countries HCWs were called heroes. The label 'hero' may not be appropriate for the average HCW when faced with the SARS epidemic, although a number of self-less acts can be found. The label was also politically convenient.
Conclusions: A middle ground for reasonable expectations from HCW when treating diseases that have serious risk of infection should be expected. While all should act according to the ethic of beneficence not all persons should be expected to be martyrs for society.