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Hong Kong Cheers Major Victories in Fight Against SARS - 2003-05-24


Hong Kong is cheering major victories in its fight against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS. Hong Kong newspapers displayed images of celebration on Saturday. Front pages showed photos of the territory's financial secretary, Antony Leung, toasting the World Health Organization's decision to lift an advisory against travel to Hong Kong.

More good news came later in the day. For the first time since the outbreak began, Hong Kong health authorities reported no new cases of the disease.

The WHO lifted its Hong Kong travel warning on Friday, following a dramatic slowdown in new SARS infections over the past two weeks. An advisory against travel to the adjoining Chinese province of Guangdong was also rescinded.

The WHO warning had devastated Hong Kong's economy, which relies heavily on tourism and business travel. The Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Jim Thompson, said it is now safe for people to come back. "The green light has been given. It's time to come back and enjoy Hong Kong and do business in both Hong Kong and southern China," he said.

The Philippines responded to the WHO decision by removing a ban on domestic helpers traveling to Hong Kong. About three-fifths of Hong Kong's live-in housekeepers are Filipinos, and under normal circumstances, about 1,800 newly hired Filipino helpers arrive each week. The ban had been in place since March.

Overall, Hong Kong has recorded 1,724 SARS infections, the second highest number in the world after mainland China. Two more deaths in Hong Kong Saturday brought the total to 262.

Taiwan reported 10 new SARS cases and no deaths on Saturday. The numbers are sharply down from the previous two days, when Taiwan health officials announced a combined total of 120 new cases.

The WHO says it is still concerned about the spread of SARS in Taiwan, however, while the disease is declining in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Taiwan has lifted its own ban on business travelers from those three areas, but extended its ban on tourists from the three places for another two weeks.

China's Guangdong Province issued an all points bulletin Saturday in search of civet cats. Hong Kong medical researchers say they believe the cats are the source of the coronavirus that causes SARS.

Although civet cats are an endangered species, they can be found for sale as a delicacy in Southern Chinese markets. Chinese authorities say they plan to put a stop to the trade, and are mounting a campaign to disinfect animal markets.

Even as places like Hong Kong breathe a sigh of relief, officials are warning their people that SARS could return if they let down their guard. That danger was illustrated in Toronto, which reported five more likely SARS cases on Friday. On Saturday the U.S. Centers for Disease Control renewed an advisory against travel to Toronto.

Worldwide, SARS has infected more than 8,000 people, and caused almost 700 deaths.

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