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SARS Appears to be Under Control, says WHO Official

A top World Health Organization official says Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appears to be under control. But the U.N. agency will not say if government measures to control the spread of the disease have worked or if the virus is simply entering a seasonal lull.

The World Health Organization's Asia Pacific director Shigeru Omi said Tuesday that SARS "appears to be under control."

The top official spoke in Cambodia at a meeting of the health ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan and South Korea, as they wrapped up plans for coping with future outbreaks.

During the past few weeks, only a few new infections are being reported around the world each day, compared with dozens a day a few months ago.

Dr. Omi warned that the decline in SARS infections did not mark a victory over the illness. He also said more virulent diseases could be on the horizon.

WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said the U.N. agency is satisfied with the progress made against SARS.

"Figures from around the world make it clear that the SARS virus is well contained even in China, which had the largest outbreak we are satisfied that the numbers have come down dramatically," said Mr. Cordingley.

Some scientists speculate that the virus causing SARS has passed its seasonal peak and has died out as a result of warmer weather. Some even forecast that SARS could rebound when the weather turns cooler in a few months.

The WHO cannot confirm whether strict quarantines and the closing of schools in several countries helped intercept the spread of the disease.

"The question we have to ask ourselves at this stage is, is this because of the measures that have been taken internationally or has the SARS virus gone into some summer hibernation'" he added. "We do not know the answer to that at this stage." While Singapore and Vietnam were the only Southeast Asia nations with large SARS outbreaks, many ASEAN nations have introduced new health initiatives because of the virus.

Malaysia has pledged technical and laboratory support in identifying new diseases. Indonesia will set up a Web site carrying extensive information about SARS. And Thailand will organize a meeting to improve the ability of health workers to respond to fresh outbreaks.

Almost 800 people have died from SARS, out of the 8,300 people infected globally. The bulk of the cases are in Asia.