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SARS 'Under Control' WHO Says - 2003-06-05

The World Health Organization team in Beijing says China is trying hard to provide data about its SARS outbreak, while senior WHO officials complain that China is not fully cooperating. The WHO team in China also says SARS appears to be under control in most parts of the world.

A team of World Health Organization officials on Thursday revealed there are differences of opinion within the U.N. agency over China's ability to track Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

WHO official Henk Bekedam in Beijing says that recent comments by other agency staff members are not in line with his team's findings. "This is not about good cop and bad cop. It might be about an informed cop and one who is not informed," he said. "We are working on the ground here, and we are working with the government on a daily basis. But we feel very much that if we ask for data, we get data."

Earlier this week, WHO officials at the headquarters in Geneva and in Manila said China's official figures on SARS may be flawed, and that Chinese officials are not providing crucial information on the outbreak. But on Thursday, WHO officials in Beijing praised China for reporting SARS cases openly. They also said the lack of some data is not intentional on Beijing's part, but could be due to patients being unwilling to provide the names of people they might have infected. They also say China's vast size makes it hard to collect data, but that the problem is the system, not a deliberate effort to withhold information.

The WHO team also says the worst may be over for now. "Now, I think, we dare to say that the SARS epidemic is over its peak," said Henk Bekedam. "We can see it globally, and we can also see it in China. I think that's very good news."

The difference of opinion within the U.N. health agency comes as Beijing is hoping WHO will lift its warnings against travel to much of the country.

The U.N. health agency lifted its travel warning for Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in late May. It maintains similar advisories on Taiwan and parts of mainland China, including Beijing.

Because of the WHO advisories, thousands of tourists and business people have postponed trips to Asia, causing a dramatic slump in the travel industry.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control late Wednesday removed its travel alert for Singapore, and downgraded its more serious travel warning for Hong Kong, saying that risks posed by SARS have lessened in recent weeks.

SARS, which causes a serious pneumonia, has killed at least 772 of the 8,400 people it has infected worldwide.

Mainland China and Hong Kong together make up more than 80 percent of the world's cases.