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APEC health ministers cautiously declare victory over SARS

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Bangkok (dpa) - A cautious declaration of victory against the SARS virus was declared Saturday by health ministers of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) grouping.

But the health ministers, meeting in Bangkok to assess the lessons learned from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak, warned that strict preventative measures must be enforced to prevent the return of the disease, or something even more deadly.

"SARS is becoming less a decisive factor on travel around the Asia-Pacific region," said a joint statement issued by the ministers of the 21-nation grouping, 11 of whom attended the Bangkok meeting.

"We welcome the progress made by affected economies in bringing the SARS epidemic under control, and express confidence in the medium and long-term growth for the region, including affected economies."

With Hong Kong and China removed from the World Health Organisation's list of SARS transmission risk zones, only Taiwan and the Canadian city of Toronto were yet to be given a clean bill of health.

WHO officials said those two places could be removed from the list early in July, effectively leaving the world SARS-free.

But health ministers at the one-day meeting in Bangkok said cooperation between affected countries was essential to prevent SARS from making a comeback, particularly where it is believed to have originated, in China.

"Much remains unknown about SARS, the diversity of its clinical features, how to treat it, and the likelihood of future outbreaks," said the statement. "Controlling SARS requires continued vigorous surveillance and containment of new cases, intensive regional and global collaboration, biomedical research, implementation of effective strategies at all levels."

Among those strategies is an agreement to "share all relevant information immediately with the WHO and also though the newly established APEC Emerging Infections Network.

The ministers' statement reflected determination not to repeat the mistakes made early in the outbreak, particularly by China, in witholding data from the WHO.

It also sought to avoid the unilateral implementation of passenger screening measures that caused friction during the SARS crisis.

"We agree that any measures we adopt to screen passengers will be internationally-recognized, science-based and will address actual risk factors without stigmatizing portions of the traveling public," the statement said.

"SARS control measures must not become non-tarriff barriers to trade and travel," it said. "As there is no evidence that goods and products from economies with local transmission of SARS pose risk to public health, disinfecting or barring such goods or products is unnecessary."

The ministers also urged all countries "to speedily move to lift any remaining SARS-related travel restrictions to APEC member economies, or regions to APEC member economies, that have been removed from the list of affected areas and areas with local SARS transmission by the WHO".

Thai officials said the SARS crisis was expected to cut overall economic growth among APEC nations between 0.3 and 0.5 per cent this year, with the tourism sector most badly hurt.

But Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in an address to the health ministers of the countries who attended the meeting - China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam - sounded an optimistic note in praising their efforts in defeating SARS.

"These and other efforts seem to have paid off," he said. "Since 23 June there have been no no cases worldwide. Travel advisories have now been lifted against all the hardest hit regions, including Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and, most recently on 24 June, Beijing. My congratulations to all, especially China, on a job well done."

Copyright 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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