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WHO Urges East Asian Government to Act Against SARS - 2003-04-26

An official of the World Health Organization official has called on East Asian governments to take urgent action to curb the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The U.N. agency has also pointed to Vietnam's apparent success in containing the outbreak.

A top World Health Organization official called on Asian nations Saturday to "use every weapon" at their disposal to search for and isolate every single SARS victim.

The urgent plea came from Shigeru Omi, the WHO's Asia-Pacific regional director. Mr. Omi, who was addressing Asian health officials meeting in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, said "we must be absolutely relentless in our search for every possible case. The world is watching us."

The health ministers are preparing for an emergency summit starting next Tuesday in Bangkok, to coordinate steps to curtail the spread of SARS.

The illness, which causes a serious and sometimes deadly pneumonia, has struck more than 4,600 people worldwide and has killed almost 300. More than two-thirds of those victims have been concentrated in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Health experts fear the disease could kill a lot more people if it starts spreading to lesser-developed Asian nations that are poorly equipped to treat it.

But the WHO says Vietnam, which was one of the first countries hit by the disease, was close to declaring its outbreak over. On its web site Saturday, the U.N. agency reported that Vietnam has not had any new cases for 17 days in a row.

In Beijing, a third hospital treating SARS patients was sealed late Friday with patients and staff inside. A week after admitting that China's SARS situation was far worse than originally portrayed, the authorities are now taking dramatic steps to curtail the disease. Thousands have been put under quarantine, and vehicles going in and out of Beijing and Shanghai are being checked for possible victims. The government has ordered local officials to report fully and accurately.

Despite this order, however, the WHO said Saturday it was still awaiting crucial data from Chinese health officials regarding the dates of the disease's onset and the location of new cases.

The disease is believed to have originated in Southern China late last year. It has now has struck more than 2,700 people in China and has killed 122.

Hong Kong reported 17 new cases Saturday, the smallest daily increase in a month. Hong Kong has had 1,527 cases in all, second only to China.

The death toll rose by six on Saturday to 121. Health officials are concerned that in Hong Kong, a number of the fatalities have been relatively young patients with no prior medical problems.