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U.N. Health Agency Backs China’s Reports of Drop in SARS Cases

At a news briefing broadcast nationally on Chinese state television, a team of WHO experts in Beijing said that while China had yet to fill in many blanks regarding the spread of the virus, the government appeared to be reporting in full.

“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,” Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China, told a news conference. “I think that’s very good news.”

“We think that the reported figures are believable for Beijing,” said team member Anne Schuchat.

China reported Thursday no new sufferers from the potentially fatal disease for the third time in four days. More than 5,000 people have been infected on China’s mainland since the SARS outbreaks began.

Authorities are evaluating the decline in China, trying to determine whether it is seasonal or caused by other factors and whether the country is equipped to control the virus’ spread if there are additional cases, Dr. David Heymann, the WHO’s communicable disease chief, said.

“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.”

Bekedam said the WHO was very close to lifting its advisory against travel to four infected areas surrounding Beijing — Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia and Tianjin — but needed to know more about local transmission and recent cases.

Thursday’s press conference was a departure from the skepticism regarding China’s SARS case count that the WHO expressed on Tuesday.

“We are concerned about how these cases are being counted,” WHO spokesman Ian Simpson said Tuesday. “We do not know enough about where these numbers are coming from.”

Bekedam tried on Thursday to dispel suggestions the WHO was issuing mixed messages on Beijing’s level of cooperation in the war on SARS. “It’s not about good cop and bad cop,” he said. “It might be a better-informed cop and a cop that is not that informed.”

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