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WHO Calls For Stepped Up Vigilance Against SARS

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Manila (dpa) - The World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday urged Asian countries to step up vigilance against SARS amid a new wave of infections in China, which has led to the first reported death since a major outbreak last year.

Shigeru Omi, director of the WHO's regional office in Manila, noted however that there was no need yet to impose travel restrictions since there was no extensive community transmission and no evidence of exportation of the disease.

"We do not see as yet this situation as a serious public health threat," he said. "But at the same time, we also believe that we have to remain highly vigilant."

Omi said Chinese authorities were still trying to determine if foreign visitors or other local workers had been exposed to the virus in the laboratory where the index case, a 26-year-old medical student, got infected.

"We have no information yet as to whether there were international visitors or other Chinese nationals who worked in the laboratory and already went abroad," he said. "That is a potential risk."

Omi said China has so far reported two confirmed SARS cases - the medical student and a 20-year-old nurse who treated her - and six suspected cases, including the medical student's mother who died on April 19.

A total of 993 other people who came into contact with the index case due to train travel were also "under investigation" for possible infections, he added.

Omi said the WHO was scheduled to send a team to China within the week to investigate the incident - the third case in which a laboratory was the source of an infection following Singapore and Taiwan late last year.

"Laboratory bio-safety is a serious issue that we have to address," he said. "In Singapore and Taiwan last year, there were no secondary transmissions let alone a third one. This also represents the first time that a laboratory case caused a death."

"This situation needs more attention than the Singapore and Taiwan cases, but that doesn't mean we need to panic," he added.

SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, killed 774 people in 30 countries from November 2002 to July 2003, according to the WHO. More than 8,000 people were infected with the disease, which also devastated tourism industries worldwide.

Copyright 2004 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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