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World Health Officials Declare SARS Contained, Lift Taiwan Travel Warning

WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland said at a meeting of international health experts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, ”We have seen SARS stopped dead in its tracks.”

At the meeting, Brundtland warned that nations that fail to sound the alarm at the early stages of an outbreak risk harming their international credibility.

During the height of the SARS ordeal, the WHO criticized Health Ministry officials in Beijing for allegedly downplaying the severity of SARS in the city. The WHO also accused China of waiting months before informing international health officials about the initial outbreak.

On Tuesday, the WHO also lifted a month-old warning against travel to Taiwan, the hardest-hit area after Hong Kong and mainland China. The move left Beijing as the only city still under a WHO-issued travel warning.

The Chinese capital still has nearly 700 SARS cases, according to WHO reports. Officials did not say when the Beijing warning might be lifted.

While health officials across the globe have largely contained the virus, WHO authorities said a reappearance of the disease could depend on China, where SARS originated late last year.

“China certainly is the key to this outbreak in many respects,” WHO executive director David Heymann told Reuters. “Particularly because China has been able to contain this outbreak.”

As of Monday, Chinese officials reported about 5,327 probable SARS cases and 346 deaths, Reuters reports.

Worldwide, the virus has killed 799 people and infected more than 8,400.

In the U.S., the disease has sickened only 72 people. U.S. officials have reported no SARS-related deaths.

While WHO reports seem optimistic, one Canadian official said a SARS reappearance should not be ruled out.

“It’s really apparent that the ember can continue to smolder and the disease recur,” Dr. Paul Gully, chief of Canada’s health department, told Reuters.

Despite increased surveillance and rapid response, Toronto officials were unable to stop a second outbreak of the disease last month, Gully said.

Taiwanese officials expressed relief that the WHO had lifted the country’s travel ban. Two recent requests to be removed from the organization’s travel warning list had been refused.

“If the travel advisory was not removed, Taiwan’s economy could not stand much longer,” Dr. Su Ih-jen, Taiwan’s director of disease control told Reuters.

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