WHO - SARS outbreak 'over the peak'

Friday, June 6, 2003

BEIJING -- The SARS outbreak is "over its peak" around the world, including in the hardest-hit country China, a World Health Organization official said Thursday.

A renewed outbreak in Toronto shows, however, that the world must still remain vigilant against the illness, said Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China.

"It's fair to say that the SARS epidemic is over its peak. We can see it globally and we can also see it in China," Bekedam told a news conference. "I think that's very good news."

He said the outbreak in Canada's largest city showed that another epidemic could be sparked with "just one missed diagnosis."

"I think the challenge now is to eliminate (SARS) as a public health threat," he said at a news conference.

His comments came as China for a second consecutive day reported no new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome on its mainland.

The Health Ministry reported two new fatalities, raising the mainland death toll to 336. More than 5,000 people have been infected on China's mainland.

Authorities are evaluating the decline in China, trying to determine whether it is seasonal or caused by other factors and whether efforts are adequate to control the spread if there are additional cases, said Dr. David Heymann, communicable disease chief of the World Health Organization.

"We're on a downward slope, but that downward slope could spike up any time, just as it did in Canada," Heymann said. "The disease is still with us. We have to be sure that the disease is gone before we make any announcements that we can let up our guard."

In Hong Kong, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa welcomed the lifting of a travel advisory by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as proof the territory is recovering from the virus.

WHO lifted its own advisory for Hong Kong, imposed in April, nearly two weeks ago.

Hong Kong reported no new cases or deaths Thursday. The territory has suffered 284 deaths, with 1,748 people sickened.

"The announcement is a further indication that the SARS disease is contained, travel to Hong Kong is safe and life is returning to normal," Tung said.

With Taiwan reporting just one new case, the three areas of the world worst-hit by SARS appeared on the road to recovery. The island has suffered 81 deaths, but none in the last eight days. It has nearly 700 people infected.

Between them, they have suffered about 90 percent of the more than 8,300 infections and 775 fatalities reported in more than two dozen countries since SARS first emerged in southern China in November.

Taiwan's latest figures spurred hopes that WHO might lift a warning against nonessential travel to the island.

Yet Taiwan still had some way to go since more than 200 SARS patients were still in the hospital. WHO can only lift its travel warning when that number falls below 60.

WHO discussed the possibility of warning against travel to Toronto this week, but decided against it because the new cases in the Canadian city appeared under control with no spread in the general population, said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson in Geneva.

The three new infections bring the total to 67.

Some 987 people were in home quarantine, down from more than 5,000 the day before, while more than 200 others were being monitored for SARS-like symptoms.

Reports of new cases have fallen steadily on China's mainland.

But travel warnings remain in place, amid skepticism by WHO officials about whether China is investigating aggressively enough to detect all cases in Beijing -- which has suffered 181 deaths and about half of China's 5,331 infections.

WHO officials said they found no sign SARS was spreading uncontrolled in four Chinese provinces and regions they visited last month. The vast hinterland's health care system is rickety and poorly prepared to cope, and officials have said a major outbreak there could be a disaster.

Daily reports of new cases in the Chinese capital fell from about 100 at the beginning of May to about 50 mid-month to single-digits in recent days.

China was widely criticized for its slow, ineffective response to the outbreak and its early reluctance to respond to foreign pleas for information and cooperation.

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