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SARS 'stopped dead in its tracks'

Experts say China holds the key to whether SARS will resurface.
Experts say China holds the key to whether SARS will resurface.

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The World Health Organization says the worst is over in the fight against SARS less than three months after a global alert triggered an unprecedented worldwide response.

The pneumonia-like disease that spanned China to Canada has killed about 800 people and infected more than 8,000, sending authorities scurrying to contain it through centuries-old measures of isolation, quarantine and travel restrictions.

Airlines were caught in the middle of the scare, after tourists to Hong Kong spread the respiratory illness to around 30 countries across the globe as they returned to their homes.

"We have seen SARS stopped dead in its tracks," WHO director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland told more than 1,000 scientists and clinicians at a global SARS conference in Malaysia.

On Tuesday, the global health group lifted a month-old travel advisory on Taiwan, effective immediately, saying the "situation had improved significantly."

Taiwan was the third-hardest hit area after mainland China and Hong Kong, with 83 people killed by the virus and 698 infected.

The Chinese capital of Beijing is now in the uncomfortable position of being the only place still saddled with a SARS advisory from the WHO, and experts say China is the key to making sure the deadly illness will not re-emerge.

China is widely believed to have been the birthplace of SARS, emerging in the southern province of Guangdong in November. Guangdong is an area with a history of incubating infectious diseases because of the close contact between animals and humans.

At one juncture, authorities had warned the virus could become a pandemic as it was very virulent, survived for hours on an inanimate object, spread though faulty drainpipes, and was shown to infect entire hospital wards if workers did not follow infection guidelines.

SARS is still a dangerous disease, experts say, as it has no reliable diagnostic test and there is no cure in sight. What's more one single case or lapse in infection control could re-ignite an outbreak.

Canada, for one, thought it had SARS under control, but a series of cases emerged in late May after it had been declared SARS-free.

Health authorities around the world are also worried that SARS could re-emerge in winter months, when respiratory diseases are rife.

The WHO has pointed to serious deficiencies in surveillance and control systems in a number of locations. Many countries do not have a centralized information clearing house like the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

China at first tried to downplay its outbreak, but made a stunning turnaround, firing its health minister and the major of Beijing. The global spread of SARS has been blamed partly on an information blackout in the early days of the epidemic.

While travel advisories have been lifted for several Chinese provinces, it is unclear when Beijing might be cleared as it still has many SARS cases, senior WHO officials have said.

The top Chinese delegate to the conference, Vice Minister for Health Gao Qiang, admitted on Tuesday that Beijing's initial response was "inadequate."

The Chinese government has made eradicating SARS its priority, Gao said.

The WHO says it is clear that certain steps have proven effective in tracing, identifying, and isolating those who either have the disease or have come into contact with someone who does.

Countries that have taken the most thorough and rigorous steps, such as Singapore and Vietnam, have managed the disease more quickly than others, the WHO says.

While many disease experts disagree over whether it is reasonable to think SARS can be eradicated, they all say any kind of cure or vaccine preventing it is years away.

-- CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy contributed to this report.

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