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WHO: SARS No Longer Threat in Hong Kong - 2003-06-23

The World Health Organization says Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, no longer poses a threat to Hong Kong. But while Hong Kong cheers the WHO announcement, some are urging caution should the outbreak return.

School children in Hong Kong are ripping off their surgical face masks, as the World Health Organization Monday declared the territory out of danger from the SARS virus. The move follows no reported new cases in 20 days, twice the incubation period for the pneumonia-like disease.

Hong Kong is celebrating the news with street parties and other festivities.

The territory's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa welcomed the declaration, taking the opportunity to praise medical workers who manned the frontlines in the battle against SARS. But he also called on Hong Kong residents to remain vigilant. "From experiences everywhere else, we have to remind ourselves that this could come again."

WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley also warns that although Hong Kong is now safe, the virus could still return during the winter cold season. He says scientists still have only a limited understanding of the deadly contagion.

"SARS is back in the box, but we haven't been able to put the lid on the box," says Mr. Cordingley. "We don't know what causes this virus, we don't know were it comes from, we don't know how it spreads."

Since the outbreak hit in March, Hong Kong recorded 1,755 infections and 296 deaths, the hardest hit area after China.

While the WHO declaration is good news for Hong Kong, businesses may still need time to recover from the economic fallout.

Investec Asset Management's Stewart Aldcroft says the SARS crisis marked the low point in Hong Kong's greatest economic crisis in a generation. He says that the hardest-hit sectors, restaurants, hotels and other segments of the hospitality industry, could take time to recover.

"I'm not going to say that because they were most damaged, they're going to be most likely beneficiaries as the recovery occurs, because they will need more time, particularly the hotels and the travel companies," says Mr. Aldcroft.

In an effort to resuscitate these sectors, Hong Kong is planning a tourism promotion blitz, hoping to bring people back to what was previously one of Asia's top travel destinations.