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Asia Adopts Tough Measures to Counter Spreading of SARS - 2003-04-11

Growing alarm over the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has led Asian governments and organizations to take tough - sometimes extreme -measures to stop the disease's spread.

A Singaporean man found to have a temperature as he arrived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai was placed on the next flight back to Singapore. He was the only passenger in the 118-seat aircraft.

Back in Singapore, the Roman Catholic archbishop has ordered a suspension of individual confessions, so that priests and penitents will not have to sit together in closed confessionals. Instead, Singapore's 152,000 Catholics have been given general absolution for their sins for the time being. Singaporean Muslims who show flu-like symptoms have been excused from Friday prayers.

In Indonesia the health minister, Achmad Suyudi, urged citizens to stop spitting in public.

Singapore has been one of the countries hardest hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, with more than 120 cases. Thailand has had only a handful, and Indonesia has just one. No matter, governments, groups and individuals throughout Asia are taking strong steps to keep the disease from spreading further.

First detected in Southern China in November, SARS has since infected nearly 2,800 people and killed more than 110 worldwide.

Schools have been closed in Hong Kong and Singapore. Malaysia has banned all travelers from China. Thailand said visitors coming from any area affected by the disease must wear face masks for two weeks, or face fines and imprisonment.

Thailand has posted hundreds of health workers at its international airports, who are checking arrivals for signs of illness and hospitalizing or sending back any who show suspicious symptoms. Departing passengers are also checked for symptoms.

The Public Health Ministry spokeswoman, Nitaya Mahaphol, says this airport screening is a key element in Thailand's anti-disease efforts.

"At first if [passengers] have the symptoms they are not allowed to go on the flight," she explained. " Secondly we have also requested some of the passengers who show the symptoms to return to their original [destinations]. One man has been asked to return to [his] exit point."

Thailand's new year holiday, Songkran, starts Saturday, and some have expressed fear that the large crowds that normally throng the streets during the holiday could help spread the disease.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, expressing confidence in the anti-SARS measures his government has taken, pledged to pay more than two-million baht, about $46,000 to the family of any person who becomes infected with the disease during the holiday.

Mrs. Nitaya also believes the government's measures have proven successful so far.

"I think we have cut down and we have no local transmission at the moment so we will say we are very satisfied with the result and effectiveness of these measures at the moment," she said.

But not all Thais are assured. The cremation of a SARS victim in Songkhla province was delayed because people were afraid the cremation would spread the disease. Several temples refused to carry out the cremation ceremony.

Vichian Keanploy, a Songkhla health official, told VOA that even reassurances by a hospital director and a university professor failed to calm the local people's fears.

Mr. Vichian said no matter how the hospital director explained the situation, the temple committee and the people disagreed with him. He said he brought a professor from the university and they still wouldn't listen. They did not understand. They would not allow the cremation of the body.

In the end, the cremation was carried out at a secret location.

Singapore and Hong Kong closed their schools to more than 1.6 million students after the disease struck. Instead of staying home, however, many of the children were seen congregating in video arcades and shopping malls. It was suggested that they were under just as much risk of exposure as if they had stayed in school. But Eileen Chan, a Singapore mother of three, agreed with her government's decision.

"Singaporeans will take whatever precautions and more and they will do it for a longer time, if nothing else, I believe around the world all mothers are generally concerned about their children - no precautions are ever enough," she said.

United Nations health officials agree that some of these steps may seem drastic. But they do not criticize the steps, telling VOA that governments have a moral obligation to minimize the transmission of serious diseases among their populations.