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WHO Bracing for Possible New Outbreak of SARS - 2003-08-21

The World Health Organization is bracing for what it says could be a new outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome later this year.

An international team of scientists has called on Chinese officials to standardize and improve tests to better track the spread of SARS should it reoccur. They advised the government to improve data collection, research and reporting.

The team of World Health Organization researchers says it gave a list of other recommendations to China to prevent or control new outbreaks. The recommendations include new regulations on the sale of the meat of wild animals. Although there has yet to be any conclusive evidence on the origins of the disease, researchers say they believe it may have come from wild animals eaten in southern China.

The big question posed to the scientists is: Is the virus likely to come back this winter?

Alan Schnur, a WHO communicable disease expert, says no one knows.

"There is a chance that it can come back. The exact percentage we don't know," he said. "We are ready this time. The WHO is working with the government to set up enhanced surveillance so that if it does come back we will be fully prepared to jump on it to make sure that it does not spread in hospitals, and that we fully contain it if it comes back."

Mr. Schnur says the World Health Organization will help the Chinese government begin a program next month to train thousands of health workers to deal with the illness if it reappears.

SARS has killed more than 800 people worldwide, most of them in China, where the disease first appeared late last year.

No new cases of SARS have been reported in several months. The last two patients who were hospitalized with the disease in Beijing were discharged a few days ago.

Scientists on Thursday urged the government of China to invest more in its crumbling health system. At the same time, they praised Chinese officials for what they said is an ambitious effort to prepare for a possible reappearance of the disease.