SARS: ASIAN GOVTS FOR TIGHTER SCREENING

Kuala Lumpur, April 27, 2003 --  Asian health ministers agreed on stricter 
pre-departure SARS checks on passengers at airports and seaports in a bid 
to halt the virus, as a WHO official warned any vaccine may be years away.

"I think we are looking at two years, three years, maybe, before a 
vaccine," said World Health Organization official Mark Salter, adding that 
WHO planned to pull together world vaccine experts next week to speed 
things along.

Flu-like SARS, a respiratory infection with a mortality rate of about 6 
percent, spreads via coughs and sneezes but can also be transmitted by 
touching contaminated objects. It is widely believed to have originated in 
southern China and has been spread around the world by travelers.

Symptoms of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) include high fever, a 
dry cough and difficulty in breathing.

The disease has battered Asian economies, forcing several governments to 
cut growth forecasts, and has badly hit wide swathes of business from 
retail to airlines to tourism.

"The threat posed by SARS is unprecedented. Tourism has almost disappeared. 
Normal life has also been severely disrupted," Shigeru Omi, head of the 
WHO's Western Pacific regional office, told the meeting in an opening speech.

Efforts this weekend and at next week's Bangkok meeting of Southeast Asian 
heads of government would be critical, he said.

"We are at a crossroads. What we decide today and at the heads of state 
meeting on Tuesday will determine the future course of this outbreak."

The illness could be "China's Chernobyl," a disaster leading to more 
political openness in the Communist country, two former US ambassadors to 
China said in the United States on Friday.

WHO and other groups have accused China of concealing the severity of the 
outbreak, robbing them of the opportunity to investigate it early and 
prevent it spreading across China and to other countries. China responded 
by sacking the health minister and the mayor of Beijing for negligence.

The highly contagious flu-like illness has killed at least 289 people and 
infected about 4,800 in more than 20 countries. That includes 341 probable 
and suspected cases in Canada, up from 327 on Thursday - a number that 
included some new cases outside hard-hit Ontario.

The WHO on Wednesday advised travelers to stay away from Toronto, warning 
that Canada has exported the virus to other countries - the United States, 
the Philippines and perhaps Australia. The advisory is due to last three weeks.

"It's mandatory for all countries to undertake pre-departure screening," 
Malaysian Health Minister Chua Jui Meng told a news conference, referring 
to a ministerial declaration.

"All SARS suspects, as well as probable cases, will not be allowed to 
travel, especially beyond their borders," he said, summarizing 
recommendations due before a SARS meeting of regional heads of government 
in Bangkok on Tuesday.

Health chiefs from China and Hong Kong were joined by others from South 
Korea, Japan and 10 Southeast Asian states at a luxury hotel largely 
rendered bereft of tourists by worries over the flu-like SARS.

SARS has hit Asia hard since it broke out in southern China in November, 
with the latest death toll reported on Saturday from Beijing rising by 
seven to 122, with around 2,750 cases.

Hong Kong raised its fatality count by six to 121 deaths, with 1,527 cases.

Of the Southeast Asian countries hit by SARS, Singapore has so far borne 
the brunt, with 19 deaths, followed by Malaysia, Thailand and the 
Philippines, each of which has had two.

In Hong Kong, the six new fatalities included a previously healthy 
28-year-old man and a male nurse.

The 17 new cases, including three healthcare workers and some with close 
contacts with SARS patients, were lower than the daily average of 20 to 30 
reported in the past few weeks.

"I'm confident the trend will be better and better," Hong Kong's Director 
of Health Margaret Chan told reporters, adding, however, that there is 
still nothing to celebrate, given there is still no known cure for the 
highly contagious disease.

The Hong Kong government said 18 more patients have recovered, bringing the 
total number of discharged patients to 632, besides 129 recovering patients 
in convalescence and preparing for discharge.

Chan said health authorities have also been investigating a residential 
building, where the disease has been caught by six members of three 
families living on the same side of the Hing Tung House of the Tung Tau 
Estate but on different floors.

Hong Kong, struggling to contain the disease, started to take the 
temperature of passengers at all its major border crossings on Saturday, as 
part of efforts to win back international confidence been badly shaken by 
the epidemic.

The World Health Organization has issued a travel advisory against visiting 
Hong Kong and various Chinese cities.

Hong Kong media have criticized the government for slowness and 
inefficiency in fighting SARS, which had infected 345 medical staff by 
Saturday, though 140 of that total have recovered.

In Toronto, Canada's biggest city reported three more deaths and eight new 
cases of SARS on Friday, even as Toronto health officials insisted they 
were bringing the outbreak of the deadly virus under control.

The officials said the new cases were among hospital workers, who already 
make up one in four of Ontario's 265 suspected and probable SARS sufferers, 
and that the spread of the virus was coming under control in the community.

"We're not entirely out of the woods on everything, but we're moving along 
day by day," Dr. Jim Young, Ontario's commissioner of public safety, told a 
news conference.

The Toronto area is still the only part of the world outside Asia where 
people have died from the respiratory illness. The deaths reported on 
Friday brought the total number to 19.

Canadian health officials said they remained optimistic that the WHO may 
lift a travel warning to Toronto as early as next week after it reviews new 
data.

Ontario's Commissioner of Public Health, Dr. Colin D'Cunha, said there had 
been no new cases outside hospitals since April 9. "We have wrestled down, 
I believe, the community angle."

He added: "If the data holds up in terms of no more community cluster 
transmission, then I see no reason for the travel advisory to continue."

The WHO warning, and the institution's refusal to rescind it, has left 
Toronto fighting for its reputation and economic health. Conventions have 
been canceled; hotels have empty rooms and public transit is less crowded 
than normal.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said he had talked to WHO chief Gro 
Harlem Brundtland on Friday in an unsuccessful bid to have the advisory 
lifted immediately.

Chretien insisted Toronto was safe and said international health experts 
were wrong to warn travelers to stay away.

Health Canada issued its own domestic travel advisory on Friday that said 
travel to anywhere in Canada is safe and the government's Treasury Board, 
in charge of all federal public service workers, said it was "business as 
usual" as far as travel to and from Toronto was concerned.

"Health Canada does not normally issue travel advice with respect to 
domestic travel. However, given the nature of the Canadian SARS situation 
and to give Canadians the best available advice, Health Canada is providing 
this domestic travel notice," the advisory said.

Most hospitals in Toronto are closed to most visitors, but very few people 
wear masks in the streets.

The Air Canada Center, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National 
Hockey League, was packed for three sold-out playoff games in the past two 
weeks, when the SARS scare was at its peak. The arena can seat about 19,000 
people.

"The Leafs are out, that's more devastating," joked Gail Brown, a Toronto 
resident, about the team's loss in the first playoff round. "In all 
seriousness though, not to make light of it, but it isn't like (SARS has) 
stopped us in our tracks."

Despite the WHO warning, the virus has not scared away some celebrities. 
Elton John and Billy Joel say they are ready to play at Air Canada Center 
on Monday. But sitarist Ravi Shankar said he was postponing a Toronto 
concert scheduled for Friday until October.

In Bombay, a 40-year-old Indian man has tested positive for the SARS virus, 
authorities said on Saturday, the country's fifth case.

The man is the uncle of a Jakarta-based Indian restaurant manager, who 
travelled home to attend his sister's wedding last week and was diagnosed 
with SARS in the western city of Pune, said Dr B.P. Gaikwad, Pune's deputy 
director of health services.

"His sample tested positive yesterday. But he has no symptoms at all. He is 
just a carrier of the virus at this stage," Gaikwad told Reuters by phone, 
adding that the uncle had been in close contact with the nephew during 
preparations for the wedding.

The bride and the mother were also infected by the virus but the bride 
insisted on getting married in a church despite pleas from doctors. 
Twenty-five guests, including the uncle, were quarantined in Pune after the 
wedding.

Some doctors have expressed fears SARS could spread rapidly in India due to 
its congested cities and overstretched health system. But government 
officials have played down chances of SARS becoming an epidemic in India. 
(Malaya and newswires)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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