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SARS Precautions Justified, Say Asian Health Officials - 2003-04-03

Asian health care officials say the precautions being taken to contain Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome are justified and will help, but some officials say the health crisis will likely get worse before it gets better.

World Health Organization officials have said they believe the disease may have peaked in Southern China, where it is believed to have originated - but not internationally.

That assessment has prompted Asian countries to continue their measures aimed at controlling the spread of the disease.

Taiwan has quarantined 700 people they believe have been exposed to the virus. A new case of SARS was reported in Taiwan Wednesday, bringing to 14 the number of cases reported there.

Here in Bangkok, where there have been two SARS deaths, visitors from countries most affected are being required to wear protective masks for 14 days while in public places or risk arrest and forced quarantine.

Malaysia barred the immigration of workers from affected countries.

Doctor Bjorn Melgaard, the World Health Organization representative in Thailand, believes these measures are justified and could help contain the disease, but are unlikely to stop it completely. "We think that countries can minimize the risk but they cannot eliminate it," he said. "We would expect the epidemic to spread further, there would be more cases, there will be more countries."

A report from Brazil seemed to support that view. A British journalist who arrived to cover Sunday's Brazilian Grand Prix may have contracted the disease. The 42-year-old woman had been in Malaysia to cover the Grand Prix there, and had passed through Singapore and London en route to Brazil. If confirmed, this would be the first case in Latin America.

Dr. Melgaard is also less than optimistic about the prospects for treatment of the disease. "The available anti-viral drugs seem not to have any striking affect on the disease and I would not be too optimistic about having any type of treatment of the disease during this epidemic," he said.

The effects of the SARS outbreak are being felt across Asia. Airlines and tour companies, already experiencing a drop off in business due to the war in Iraq, have reported cancellations as travelers appear to be heeding WHO advice to postpone non-essential travel to the worst affected areas.

An American woman was removed from an Australian flight bound for Hong Kong late Wednesday after other passengers and crew became worried she might be suffering from the disease. She was later found to have no symptoms.

Some Air New Zealand flight attendants are refusing to fly to Hong Kong, and one Hong Kong-bound flight was delayed Wednesday as a result. And China's ambassador to Wellington on Thursday accused organizers of a sister cities conference of panicking by asking 50 Chinese delegates to stay away.

The Asian Football Confederation postponed two first-round soccer qualifiers for the 2004 Olympics due to SARS. The home and away series involving Taiwan vs. Singapore and Hong Kong is to be rescheduled.