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Meeting of Asian Leaders Aims to Unite Fight Against SARS - 2003-04-28

Asian leaders will soon gather in Bangkok to find a united way to combat the spread of SARS. They aim to restore confidence in a region hard hit economically by the respiratory virus. The Bangkok meeting takes place amid hopeful signs that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome can be contained.

World Health Organization officials say that SARS outbreaks may have peaked in Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong. They also say it appears Vietnam has successfully stemmed the spread of SARS, which has claimed the lives of more than 300 people worldwide, and has infected more than 5,000.

But leaders of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations think more work is needed. The spread of SARS has crippled the region's tourism industry and cut consumer spending.

They are meeting Tuesday in an unusual emergency session, and have invited the prime minister of China and the leader of Hong Kong. Mainland China and Hong Kong account for more than half the world's SARS cases.

Sihasak Phuangketkeow is a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry. He said the conference aims to boost confidence in the region. "Hopefully, if we can put in place measures individually and collectively to deal with this problem, then we will be able to restore the confidence of the international community in the region. And hopefully, we will be able to contain not only the SARS epidemic but also its affects on our economic growth," he said.

The Asian Development Bank cut its forecast for regional economic growth slightly on Monday - but warns that if the virus is not contained quickly, growth could slow dramatically.

"The SARS epidemic is a serious challenge to the region as a whole, because some countries are affected more than others. We see it as a challenge to our economic growth, a challenge to the confidence that people have in our region," he said.

Mr. Sihasak said any measures that come out of the Bangkok conference will work to keep trade moving throughout the region.

The meeting follows a gathering of regional health ministers a few days ago in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur .

The health ministers agreed on measures to slow the spread of SARS, including improved health checks at international airports, a ban on travelers showing signs of the virus, and health declaration forms for visitors from affected countries.