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SARS outbreaks contained worldwide threat remains

SARS outbreaks contained worldwide but threat remains, UN health agency reports

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) appears to have been stopped all across the globe, but cautioned that the threat of future outbreaks remains.

The agency also removed Taiwan Province of China from the list of countries with recent local transmission of SARS. It has been 20 days, or two consecutive 10-day incubation periods, since the last case there on 15 June.

"We do not mark the end of SARS today, but we observe a milestone: the global SARS outbreak has been contained," said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.

From the Guangdong province in China, the SARS virus travelled in humans to 30 countries and areas of the world but it became deeply embedded in just six. In these areas, the pattern of transmission was the same: an imported hospitalized SARS case infected health care workers and other patients who then infected their close contacts as the disease moved into the larger community. In affected areas approximately 20 per cent of all cases were in health care workers, according to WHO.

To date, 8439 people have been affected by SARS, and 812 have died. Close to 200 people remain hospitalized with the disease, WHO said, noting that undetected cases may have slipped through the surveillance network.

"This is not the time to relax our vigilance," cautioned Dr. Brundtland. "The world must remain on high alert for cases of SARS."

Dr. David L. Heymann, a senior WHO official concerned with communicable disease, echoed her warning. "We will not be able to rest until we find where this disease hides in nature and how it enters human populations because it will enter human populations again," he said.

The agency stressed the need to continue researching SARS and shoring up public health infrastructure to combat the outbreak of any new infectious disease. "SARS pushed even the most advanced public health systems to the breaking point," Dr. Brundtland observed. "Those protections held, but just barely. Next time, we may not be so lucky."

The WHO chief also paid tribute to scientists as well as public health and hospital workers who took risks in the face of a new and unknown disease. "And we must remember those frontline workers who died of SARS," she added. "Their daily dedication, courage and vigilance averted a global catastrophe."

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