GENEVA, July 5 (AFP) - The World Health Organisation said on Saturday the pneumonia-like illness SARS had been contained worldwide after it declared Taiwan, the last country on its watch list, free of new infections.
But it warned the world was not SARS-free and that health authorities globally must not drop their guard over the next year.
"Today the World Health Organisation is removing Taiwan ... from the list of areas with recent local transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)," the United Nations agency said in a statement.
"Taiwan is the last area to be removed from the list. It has been 20 days, or two consecutive 10-day incubation periods, since the last case on June 15.
"Based on country surveillance reports, the human chains of SARS virus transmission appear to have been broken everywhere in the world."
The statement quoted WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland as saying: "We do not mark the end of SARS today but we observe a milestone -- the global SARS outbreak has been contained."
However, the WHO warned that SARS had not been totally eradicated.
"We must still remember that the world is not yet SARS free, there are still close to 200 SARS patients in hospitals," Brundtland told journalists.
"Secondly it is possible that SARS cases have slipped through the surveillance net, and we know that one single case can start a new outbreak," she added.
WHO experts fears that "low-level" cases of the new disease could still be spread undetected, or might return along with other respiratory viruses such as influenza in the autumn or winter seasons.
"The jury is still out, there needs to be at least a year of concentrated surveillance to determine the answers to the questions," David Heymann, head of WHO's communicable diseases unit, told journalists.
"We cannot let a false sense of security develop over containment which has occurred today, because false security could become our worst enemy," he added.
The WHO said research into the potentially fatal respiratory disease must continue, including investigations into finding the animal source of the virus.
Diagnostic tests are still not able to detect cases of the SARS early enough, according to the health agency.
It urged governments to boost their public health systems in preparation for the next SARS outbreak, notably by improving surveillance and reporting systems and investing more in hospital infection control.
Heymann warned that he expected reports to emerge of new SARS cases.
"If we do not have further reports of suspect or probable cases, it will mean that countries are not doing their job in surveillance, something that it's important to continue".
SARS has killed more than 800 people and infected over 8,400 in some 30 countries since it first emerged in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in November last year.
But the disease was only recognised as a worldwide threat as cases emerged in Hong Kong in February, with the WHO launching a global alert about the new disease on March 12.
According to Taiwanese authorities, 84 people died on the island and 674 people were infected with the disease, and 32 patients are still being treated for SARS in hospital.
WHO on Thursday strongly recommended that all health workers around the world should be vaccinated against influenza, because of the similarity in the symptoms of the two diseases and their seasonal nature.
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