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WHO Chief Calls for Continued Vigilance Against SARS - 2003-05-06

The head of the World Health Organization says it is too early to say whether the worldwide SARS epidemic has reached its peak. But Gro Harlem Brundtland said the disease can be contained and eliminated.

Ms. Brundtland met Tuesday with European Union health ministers.

She told reporters that SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, has been eliminated in Vietnam and that it is receding in Canada. But she says it has not yet peaked in China.

The disease has infected nearly 7,000 people, most of them in China, and killed more than 400.

Europe has so far been spared from a widespread outbreak of the disease. Only 33 probable cases of the virus have been reported in eight European countries, none of them fatal.

Ms. Brundtland said European health authorities deserve credit for taking appropriate prevention measures to keep the epidemic at bay. But she said nothing should be taken for granted. "It's important that all health ministers around the world and governments, certainly at higher levels, think very seriously that we have a window of opportunity. We can still contain the first new disease of this century and make it go away, as it did in Vietnam," she said.

EU health ministers held an emergency meeting to discuss how best they can coordinate policies to prevent SARS from taking hold in Europe.

At present, there are no common EU rules on issuing disease control warnings or even on screening passengers flying into the union from SARS-affected areas like China.

One idea, propounded by EU Health Commissioner David Byrne and supported by Ms. Brundtland, is that the union should set up an EU-wide agency for disease prevention and control similar to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

That proposal also received backing Tuesday from Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency. Mr. Simitis says that with free movement of goods and people the norm throughout most of the European Union, the bloc must come up with a coordinated way to avoid the spread of SARS and other diseases.

With the EU scheduled to expand from 15 to 25 members next year, top health officials from future member states were also involved in Tuesday's discussions.