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China Reveals Plan to Combat SARS - 2003-05-01

A regional plan announced this week to deal with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is being seen as a possible turning point for Asian economies hit hard by the disease. The plan's success will depend largely on China's ability to contain the virus in the weeks ahead.

Analysts and economists say this week's emergency summit in Bangkok marked a fresh start for the region after weeks of fear and economic turmoil. The meeting drew together the leaders of China and the Southeast Asia nations in a search for ways to contain the SARS outbreak and its economic fallout.

The meeting took place amid the threat of a regionwide economic crisis. Some countries have warned that their growth may be cut in half if the crisis continues.

A plan that emerged from the summit includes broader screening of international travelers, and the setting up of an international "hotline" to facilitate the exchange of SARS information.

The sometimes fatal disease first appeared in China, and has also hit hard in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam. Flights to East Asia have been reduced and travelers are staying away, causing huge losses to the region's travel and tourist industries.

John Koldowski, a spokesman for the Pacific Asia Travel Association, hopes the new plan will help convince the world that Asia is once again safe to visit. "It looks as if we are getting a unified front in terms of assisting each other in terms of research, in terms of standardizing and harmonizing screening procedures for outgoing passengers and incoming passengers," he said. "The question of course will be, is it fast enough, is it far enough?"

The worst may already be over in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization canceled its advisory against travel to Vietnam, saying the country had successfully contained the disease. The WHO also said the disease appears to have peaked in Hong Kong and Singapore, the two areas hardest hit after China.

The main concern is now China. The mayor of Beijing warned Wednesday that the outbreak could overwhelm health care facilities in the capital. And there is fear the disease could be spreading rapidly in the less-developed countryside.

China reported 1,087 new SARS cases Thursday, bringing the national total to almost 3,500. Still, Raj Kumar, a United Nations economist, expressed confidence that strong measures by Beijing would have an impact. "I think the Chinese government has taken stronger measures than any country in the region to try to rebuild confidence that seems to have dissipated in the early stages of the crisis," said Mr. Kumar.

Mr. Kumar says the economic damage could turn out to be short term if the message gets out that the risks to travelers' health have receded.