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Ethiopia Advises Citizens to Avoid Travel to SARS Infected Countries - 2003-05-22

Ethiopia has told its citizens to cancel all non-essential travel to Asian countries suffering from SARS. It is just one measure several east African countries have taken in recent weeks in an effort to prevent the deadly virus from gaining a foothold in the region.

The Ethiopian government says it is urging all of its citizens not to travel to China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The three have been the worst hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has killed nearly 700 and infected 8,000 people worldwide.

Ethiopia also warned against travel to Singapore, where the World Health Organization says the disease is almost under control.

Ethiopian health officials say the poor country in the Horn of Africa is extremely vulnerable to the effects of SARS.

There are more than 11 million people in Ethiopia at risk of starvation from widespread famine. Doctors say people with compromised immune systems, such as those who are malnourished, would never be able to fight off a killer virus.

The flu-like SARS virus is primarily spread through personal contact or contact with an object or a surface recently touched by an infected person. There is no known cure.

In an effort to prevent the virus from entering Ethiopia, screening and quarantine facilities have been set up at the international airport in the capital, Addis Ababa. Emergency medical workers at isolation units are on standby 24 hours a day in case of an outbreak in the city.

Ethiopian Airlines is offering face masks and gloves on all of its flights.

Neighboring Eritrea is also screening travelers arriving in the country. It, too, has set up an isolation facility for anyone with suspected SARS symptoms.

In Kenya, where 13 percent of the country's 30 million people are infected with the virus that causes AIDS, health officials have established a SARS crisis task force to come up with preventive measures.

As in Ethiopia and Eritrea, travelers arriving in Kenya are now questioned and checked for symptoms. But the chairperson of the Kenyan SARS task force, Joyce Onsongo, acknowledges that health officials do not have the money or the knowledge to adequately prepare for a crisis.

"We really do not have the information, the capacity we require to contain this outbreak, should it even appear here," said Ms. Onsongo. "Looking also at our health systems, even the ability to have a facility specifically set aside for SARS is a big challenge. So, it is a major concern."

There has been only one known case of SARS on the African continent. But with thousands of travelers arriving in cities like Nairobi and Addis Ababa every day from all corners of the globe, health officials say they fear it is just a matter of time before SARS begins taking its deadly toll in Africa.