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Asian Health Ministers Agree SARS Can Be Contained - 2003-05-20

Health Ministers from several SARS-infected countries expressed agreement Tuesday that the disease can be contained if the necessary measures to detect infections and deal with the problems are taken rapidly. Health ministers from China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and Canada shared experiences about SARS during a special discussion at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Several themes emerged from the health ministers' observations.

They agree that SARS-infected nations can not overcome the epidemic alone, but must work with and share information with other nations and institutions such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. In addition, they say, governments must have good policies in place to combat SARS.

Hong Kong's Secretary of Health, Yeoh Eng Kiong, said his government has adopted a four-pronged strategy of early detection, prompt isolation of patients, quickly finding people they might have infected and effective containment. "The strategy has the effect of shortening the interval of the onset of symptoms and admission to hospital, limiting the infectious period of SARS cases and preventing further spread of the disease. The time of onset and the time of admission has been reduced from an average of 5.6 days to 3.0 days during the epidemic. So, it meant that the measures that we put in were effective in limiting the period that people were infectious and were exposing other individuals," he said.

Health Minister Yeoh said Hong Kong has seen a steady decline in new SARS cases. He said since May 11, no more than five new cases per day of the disease have been reported.

Canada and Vietnam have been so successful in containing the epidemic that they no longer appear on WHO's list of SARS-infected countries. But, Canada's Minister of Health, Anne McLellan said her government remains vigilant.

She said it has enacted strong measures, such as tough screening procedures at airports to prevent new infections from being imported or exported.

Minister McLellan said it is important that her country as well as others do a better job of educating the public about SARS. She said more effort must be made in dealing with the psychological impact caused by emerging diseases such as SARS.

"I think we need to understand more about the psychology of fear that accompanies an outbreak such as SARS. We know the impact that fear can have. It can be devastating, both as a social and economic phenomenon. In fact, fear can be as debilitating in its community effects and costs as the disease itself," she said.

In concluding the session, WHO's Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, told the health ministers the message they should take home is that SARS can be contained. But, she added it will take political commitment, collaboration, determination and the right technical measures for the fight against SARS to succeed.