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WHO 'Cautiously Optimistic' on SARS in China - 2003-05-13

World Health Organization officials are expressing cautious optimism about the fight against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in China.

The number of new SARS cases reported in Beijing has leveled off at about 50 per day, which officials find encouraging after weeks in which 100 new victims appeared every 24 hours.

World Health Organization consultant Keiji Fukuda said the figures are moving in the right direction.

"The downward trend is just there for a short time," said Dr. Fukuda. "We do not really feel the downward trend has been there for long enough for us to fully interpret. We do not believe we can say at this point that the epidemic is declining. But we are encouraged by what we are seeing."

SARS is hitting Beijing harder than any other place in the world, with five new deaths and 48 new cases reported. Nationwide, the Health Ministry says SARS has hit more than 5,000 people and killed 262.

Dr. Fukuda says China's new commitment to strong public health measures, like screening travelers and placing thousands of people in quarantine may eventually defeat the disease.

"I think that will occur. I have no doubt that will happen, that the commitment we are seeing now will solve the SARS problem," he said. "We will see SARS end in China."

WHO officials inspecting anti-SARS efforts in the partly rural province that surrounds Beijing were impressed by the strict surveillance measures there, which rely on neighborhood watches modeled on old-style communist control.

Some experts have expressed concern that SARS could ravage China's countryside, which has most of China's population, but very few of its hospitals and doctors. WHO experts say the next few weeks will tell the tale in the rural areas.

Back in the cities, officials say disease data collection has improved, but key facts, such as the day individuals contract the disease, are still often missing, and this is hurting research efforts.

Officials also complain of limited information on the eight percent of SARS victims who are in China's military.