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WHO Considers Issuing Health Advisory on SARS - 2003-04-01

The World Health Organization, WHO, said it is considering issuing an international travel and health advisory for people traveling to areas affected by a mysterious flu-like illness known as SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The Geneva-based World Economic Forum has postponed a meeting scheduled for mid-April in Beijing because of fears of contracting the disease.

Latest WHO figures show more than 1,600 cases, including 58 deaths.

The WHO said experts are reviewing what is known about the mysterious respiratory ailment to see whether personal travel recommendations are needed.

WHO regularly issues travel advisories informing travelers about precautions, such as immunizations, which should be taken when going to a foreign country.

WHO's head of communicable diseases, David Heymann, said the organization is considering issuing these personal recommendations because the manner in which SARS is spread may be changing.

"Our expert group tells us that they will be basing their decision based on whether or not the epidemiology appears to be changing, especially in Hong Kong. Up until now it has been chains of transmission person to person. But, now we are beginning to see other means of transmission which may be related to a person, that person's environment and another person," he said.

Hundreds of people are confined in an apartment building in Hong Kong where several have become infected with SARS through what appears to be means other than personal contact with a sick person.

Doctors suspect the environment may be to blame, that the water or sewage system in the apartment building may be spreading the disease from one person to another.

Dr. Heymann said the WHO experts working on a possible travel health advisory on SARS will take this, among other factors, into consideration.

"What that would be is WHO recommending to people that they either do not travel or that they postpone their travel or consider diverting their travel to certain areas. And that is the discussion that we are having with our experts. Should we now be recommending that there not be travel to certain areas. And there is no conclusion yet because we have not completed all of our consultations, including those with Hong Kong," he said.

The World Health Organization said outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome are now contained in Vietnam, Singapore and Canada. It says Hong Kong and China remain problematic.