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Doctors Need to Plan for Possible Resurgence of SARS, says WHO - 2003-06-18

Health experts say simple infection control measures and better data collection could have limited the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. A World Health Organization meeting on SARS is wrapping up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The World Health Organization says now that SARS is under control, doctors have time to plan ways to cope with the disease if it reemerges.

Henk Bekedam, who heads the WHO team in Beijing, says China and other countries need better ways of gathering and disseminating information quickly. "There are institutional problems in sharing information," he said at the agency's SARS conference in Kuala Lumpur. "Not only for China; I understand in Canada and Toronto you have the same problem. So that kind of issue, I think all countries need to look into."

Mr. Bekedam says hiding data can be dangerous because it hinders the tracking of people who have been exposed to SARS.

The need for transparency was highlighted Wednesday after prosecutors in Taiwan charged two doctors who allegedly allowed SARS to spread in a hospital by covering up cases.

Over the past eight months, more than 800 people have died from SARS, which has sickened almost 8,500 people worldwide.

But infection rates have fallen dramatically in recent weeks.

The WHO says this is in part due to the rapid implementation of quarantines, mandatory health checks, and travel warnings that kept many people from visiting SARS-infected regions. The two-day Kuala Lumpur conference, which ends Wednesday, aims to find ways to control or prevent future SARS outbreaks.

Experts say a first step is improving infection control systems within hospitals. Hundreds of patients were infected in hospitals or clinics.

Dr. Christopher Paque is a French epidemiologist who visited Vietnam at the height of the SARS outbreak in Hanoi. A tight quarantine at the first hospital in Hanoi to treat a SARS patient is credited with limiting infections. "The lesson learned is that the hospital is the key - really the key element to control these outbreaks," said Dr. Pague.

Some doctors say medical workers must pay greater attention to elderly patients, who may not display typical SARS symptoms. They recommend that doctors also identify patients who have underlying chronic illnesses, such as kidney disease, because they appear to spread SARS more than other patients.