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WHO Announces New Policies in Fight Against SARS - 2003-06-19

One hundred days after its first warning about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the World Health Organization says it has changed some policies, after reviewing lessons learned from its fight against the virus.

The World Health Organization issued its first warning about SARS on March 12. Since then, it has coordinated the worldwide effort to combat the virus.

But to maintain its fight against SARS, the WHO says it must have reliable access to accurate health data from SARS-affected countries.

The U.N. agency says effective surveillance and early detection of cases will be key to preventing a new SARS outbreak.

At a news conference in Hong Kong, David Heymann, WHO executive director of communicable diseases, laid out three new policies to improve the WHO's ability to combat SARS.

Dr. Heymann says an early problem was a lack of accurate data on regional outbreaks. China, in particular, suppressed information, and failed to secure all the facts from local health authorities.

In the future, Dr. Heymann says, the WHO will no longer rely solely on central governments for health information. The agency now can take information from private aid groups, news media and other sources.

"We can now use other sources of information, such as the global public health network … or NGOs … anyone or any source, we can now use," he said.

He says it is also important that health ministers be accessible at all times. A new 24-hour telephone hotline will be established to ensure the WHO can always communicate with health leaders in emergencies.

Finally, Dr. Heymann says, the WHO must be able to validate information provided from its partners. The WHO will seek greater access to raw data, and will ask partner nations to assist in field research.

In the past few weeks, there has been a marked decrease in the number of new SARS cases reported, and experts think the worst may now be over. Nevertheless, concern remains that a new cycle of outbreaks may occur when cooler weather returns to the Northern Hemisphere later this year. That is why WHO experts say, as much as possible must be learned now about SARS.

The disease appeared first in southern China late last year. It has infected about 8,500 people worldwide, and killed more than 800. More than two-thirds of the cases were in China and Hong Kong.