WHO Says SARS Stopped in Its Tracks; Taiwan Rejoices

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

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The pneumonia-like SARS virus has been "stopped in its tracks," the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday, as Taiwan - the location with the third-highest SARS infection and death rate - celebrated the lifting of a WHO travel advisory that has severely impacted its economy.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland told a conference in Malaysia that the spread of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had been stopped.

Officials warned, however, that much work needed to be done to ensure that fresh outbreaks of the disease do not occur.

While SARS had been contained, WHO's Western Pacific region director, Shigeru Omi, said it had not been ultimately defeated.

"We must be better prepared next time," he added.

The virus emerged in China's southern Guangdong province late last year before spreading through the region and beyond, infecting some 8,500 people and killing 800.

Mainland China (347 deaths), Hong Kong (295), Taiwan (83), Canada (32) and Singapore (32) were the hardest hit.

WHO officials are working with Chinese authorities as investigations continue into whether the virus emerged by jumping species from animals to humans in Guangdong.

Brundtland told the gathering in Kuala Lumpur that the most important lesson learned by the world community was "the need to report openly and promptly."

The WHO earlier this year criticized China for its initially secretive handling of the outbreak, which some experts said had facilitated its spread. Beijing later changed tack, firing top officials and promising a more transparent approach.

Brundtland praised China for changing its view about " what was necessary."

Also on Tuesday, the WHO lifted its advice that non-essential travel to Taiwan be avoided.

Earlier, similar advice was lifted for Canada, Hong Kong and parts of China. The only travel warning still in place covers the Beijing area.

Taiwanese Premier Yu Shyi-kun welcomed the move, saying it gave recognition to the hard work of all Taiwan's people.

Yu noted that the WHO had adopted "a very high standard" in reviewing Taiwan's applications for removal from the advisory list, subjecting it to two reviews rather than one, as in other cases.

Taiwan's domestic industry and the economy had suffered because of SARS and the fight against it, and the government has adjusted projected economic growth downward, from 3 percent to 2.89 percent.

"We are ready and waiting to welcome friends from abroad to come to Taiwan for business and pleasure," he said.

"From this day forth - whether for tourism or for business - Taiwan is a safer place than it was before, safer even than other countries that have been removed from the WHO's list of travel advisory."

WHO virologist Cathy Roth said in a statement that the outbreak had been taken very seriously by the Taiwanese government, health care staff and general public.

The crisis had resulted in "vast and very rapid improvements in the health infrastructure," she noted, saying this was especially so in the area of hospital infection control procedures.

Unlike other SARS-hit countries, Taiwan was forced to struggle alone with the outbreak for two months after the first infection, before the WHO sent experts to help.

This occurred because Taiwan is not a member of the global health body. Beijing continues to stymie the island's attempts to join as part of its ongoing campaign to ensure that the international community does not recognize Taiwanese sovereignty.

Some Taiwanese analysts have warned that China's continued blocking of Taiwan's WHO bid even as the island grappled with SARS, coming on top of the mainland's own poor initial handling of the outbreak, could have a negative effect on how many Taiwanese perceive China in the years to come.

Taiwan's government says it will hold a referendum on the question of joining the WHO to show the international community the extent of support for it among the island's 23 million people.

See Earlier Stories:
China Blocks Taiwan's Bid to Join Global Health Community
(May 21, 2003)
China Finally Admits Seriousness of Virus Outbreak (Apr. 15, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow