WHO lifts last SARS travel warning

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

BEIJING -- The World Health Organization lifted its last SARS travel warning Tuesday, declaring the disease under control in Beijing, the hard-hit capital of the nation where the outbreak began.

Beijing also was removed from a WHO list of places with recent local transmissions of severe acute respiratory syndrome, leaving only Toronto and Taiwan on that list. Travel advisories for Toronto and Taiwan were lifted earlier.

But the WHO called for the international community to remain vigilant against the disease, which has killed more than 800 people worldwide and infected over 8,400.

The end of the advisory against nonessential travel to Beijing followed the gradual end to anti-SARS measures in the Chinese capital that had closed schools, cinemas and other public facilities since late April.

Chinese airlines, hotels and other businesses welcomed the WHO announcement, hoping for a quick economic revival after months of heavy losses as travelers avoided Beijing and other SARS-affected areas.

"Things are definitely going to improve," said Eggert Muss, executive assistant manager of the Swissotel Beijing. He said that after weeks of disruption to business travel, the WHO announcement was "just what the clients wanted to hear."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, still has a travel advisory in effect for Beijing and Taiwan that recommends all but essential travel be postponed.

Take precautions

The CDC also recommends that travelers take precautions when visiting the rest of mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The world's first known SARS case occurred in November in China's southern province of Guangdong, where experts suspect the virus jumped to humans from animals.

The crisis peaked in March and April before ebbing worldwide as officials began quarantining patients and screening travelers.

Beijing accounted for just over half of China's 347 deaths and 5,300 cases. The number of new cases reported daily in Beijing fell to the single digits in early June, down from more than 150 a day a month earlier.

Shigeru Omi, WHO director for the western Pacific, said the decision to lift the Beijing travel advisory was based on factors including the number of current SARS cases, quality of surveillance and the effectiveness of prevention measures.

"After careful analysis, WHO has concluded that the risk to travelers to Beijing is now minimal," Omi told reporters in Beijing.

Beijing had just 46 people hospitalized on Tuesday, according to the Health Ministry. That was down from more than 1,000 at the height of the epidemic.

, which prompted the hurried construction of a SARS isolation facility for patients from overflowing hospitals.

A senior Chinese health official said authorities will temporarily keep checking travelers for fevers -- a possible symptom of SARS -- at airports and bus stations.

"We must not let down our vigilance," Gao Qiang, the executive deputy health minister, said at the news conference with Omi.

Hours after the WHO announcement, Japan's government lifted its own advisory against travel to Beijing.

Toronto has experienced the largest SARS outbreak outside Asia, with health officials reporting 38 deaths since the illness first appeared there in early March. The city had 24 active probable cases hospitalized Monday.

Canadian health officials reported one more fatality on Monday but said the 88-year-old man had died April 29. They said Canada's death toll was unchanged at 38 because an earlier fatality turned out not to be SARS-related.

Also in Canada, promoters announced that the Rolling Stones would headline an outdoor concert on July 30 in Toronto to boost tourism after the SARS outbreak. In early April, the Stones canceled what would have been their first concerts in China because of SARS.

In a videotaped appearance from Europe, Mick Jagger said the event is meant to "help bring back the energy to our favorite city."

Representatives from several Asian countries met Tuesday with WHO experts in Bangkok, Thailand, to discuss strategies for preventing a recurrence of the SARS outbreak.

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