Asian Gov'ts Agree on Joint Measures to Fight SARS

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The Chinese government came face-to-face with its southeast Asian neighbors Tuesday in emergency talks on the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and pledged to work together with them to combat the spread of the virus.

Despite the widespread criticism of China's initial handling of the crisis, Premier Wen Jiabao received a warm welcome from the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who met with him in Bangkok immediately after holding their own summit on SARS.

After months of playing down the outbreak, which originated in southern China's Guangdong province this past November, Beijing earlier this month apologized and instituted dramatic changes to its formerly secretive approach.

From Guangdong, the pneumonia-like virus has spread elsewhere in China and to almost 30 countries, affecting Hong Kong, Canada and ASEAN members Singapore and Vietnam especially badly.

In another development Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was lifting its recommendation against travel to Toronto, Canada, beginning Wednesday. Canadian officials had reacted angrily to the city's inclusion on a short list of places the U.N. agency said it was risky to visit.

WHO advisories remain in effect for Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangdong and another Chinese province, Shanxi.

At the Bangkok meeting, the leaders agreed on a range of measures aimed at helping prevent the further spread of the disease and restoring investor confidence in a region whose airline and tourism sectors have been among those hardest hit by the scare.

In a declaration, they said the outbreak had caused a "crisis of confidence" and threatened both the well being of the region's people and its economic growth.

Among the measures to be instituted are pre-departure health checks, which were agreed upon despite the concerns of poorer ASEAN members that they could affect tourism.

They also agreed to keep borders open. Some countries in the region earlier refused access to visitors from affected zones or introduced travel restrictions.

The leaders also agreed to set up a fund for SARS research and to help treat patients, with China among the first to pledge a contribution to it.

And they agreed to share information on the outbreak in an accurate and timely manner, setting up an information system that would give ASEAN members and China access to data on what others are doing to treat SARS and prevent its spread.

The WHO welcomed what it called the unprecedented efforts of regional governments to tackle SARS.

"Meetings of this level and magnitude, to form a common strategy against a specific disease, show how serious countries are to become free of SARS," said Dr. David Heymann, head of the agency's Communicable Diseases division, who is in Bangkok.

In an address to the gathered leaders, Heymann reiterated two simple strategies to contain and eventually stop the new disease - early detection and treatment of all cases and protecting others at risk of infection.

Although there is no vaccine or known cure for SARS, more than 90 percent of those infected recover.

In recent days, Heymann has been cautioning against over-reaction, pointing to the gap between the actual risk posed by the disease and the perception of the risk.

The same point was made Tuesday by the host country's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin also challenged the WHO itself to help ease international fears by educating the public about the fact that SARS cannot be transmitted as easily as many people think.

ASEAN member Vietnam has won praise for its speedy and transparent response to the virus when it first appeared there in a visitor from China earlier this year. This week, it was declared the first affected country to have successfully contained SARS.

Several leaders in Bangkok expressed optimism that the outbreak would be contained in the other worst hit areas soon.

"I have the instinct that within two months, China, Hong Kong and Singapore will be able to contain all the disease," the Thai leader said.

"If Vietnam can do it, Hong Kong with more resources, Singapore with all the resources we've put in, and China with the will, the resources and the organization, can surely - after some time - also begin to eradicate the problem," said Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

China's Wen said he was confident that SARS could be brought under control after a period of very hard work.

According to WHO figures, SARS has now infected almost 5,500 people and killed at least 353. The United States has reported 52 probable cases, 222 suspect cases and no deaths.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow