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Hong Kong taken off SARS list

During the height of the epidemic, as many as 90 people were falling victim to the disease each day.
During the height of the epidemic, as many as 90 people were falling victim to the disease each day.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- The World Health Organization has removed Hong Kong from its blacklist of SARS-affected areas, signaling an end to one of the worst crises the territory has ever faced.

The spread of the virus, infecting 1,755 people and killing 296, had made Hong Kong a virtual no-go zone since it first hit the territory four months ago.

With Monday's SARS-free declaration school children across Hong Kong symbolically tossed away the face masks they had been required to wear as officials marked what they hoped would be the last chapter in the epidemic's grim history.

"Every time I think about those who have passed away as a result of SARS or who have sacrificed themselves as a result of SARS, I, like all of us, feel really a great deal of sorrow," Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa told a gathering at Amoy Gardens, a housing estate where more than 300 people fell sick with SARS.

Late last month, the WHO lifted its travel advisory off the territory, but Sunday marked the twentieth day in a row Hong Kong has not reported a new SARS case -- the benchmark for a clean bill of health from the WHO.

While the virus is thought to incubate in 10 days, the health body set the target safe date as double that time.

There is no cure or vaccine for SARS, forcing authorities to rely on centuries-old measures of isolation, quarantine and travel restrictions to curb the disease.

Beijing, Toronto and Taiwan are still on the SARS blacklist, but the Chinese capital is the only place still saddled with a WHO travel advisory. Experts say China is the key to making sure the there is no resurgence of the virus.

Since appearing in southern China last November, SARS has infected around 8,400 people and killed about 800 people in close to 30 countries and territories across the world.

China on Sunday reported no new infections or deaths. Its tally from the disease remains at 347 dead from 5,326 infections. But Toronto reported two more SARS deaths, bringing to 38 the number of people who have died in the Canadian city.

Relief for Hong Kong

Monday's announcement came as welcome news for Hong Kong's nearly seven million residents who had seen their city become of the main global epicenters for the virus along with mainland China.

"Hong Kong, with its dense population and fluid border with China, had one of the hardest outbreaks to control," Dr. David Heymann, WHO chief of communicable diseases said in a statement.

"This success means that the whole world can now feel safer from the SARS threat," he said

On Monday, 25 people were still being treated for symptoms of SARS in Hong Kong hospitals.

start quoteThis is a day for celebration. But tomorrow when Hong Kong wakes up, it will still face ... challenges.end quote
-- Dong Tao

At the height of the epidemic, Hong Kongers wore masks around the streets and many simply stayed at home, hitting the retail and restaurant trade hard.

Nearly 1,300 people were confined to their homes during the outbreak as authorities fought to stop the disease's spread.

Tourists also stopped visiting the territory, slashing a vital source of income and pushing unemployment to a record 8.3 percent.

Analysts say the epidemic will cost the city billions of dollars in lost business, leaving it teetering on the brink of its third recession in six years.

Even before SARS broke out, Hong Kong was suffering from rising unemployment, chronic deflation and an identity crisis.

"This is a day for celebration. But tomorrow when Hong Kong wakes up, it will still face structural challenges," said analyst Dong Tao from Credit Suisse First Boston.

For years Hong Kong thrived as a broker between mainland China and the outside world, but mainland companies are increasingly doing deals for themselves.

In a bid to lure back visitors to the once hustling streets, Hong Kong officials are expected to unveil ambitious promotional plans Monday, and the government has embarked on a massive cleanup campaign amid fears the virus could return. (SARS could return)

Hotel occupancy has been climbing steadily and airlines are slowly beginning to fill seats once again.

All airports, ports and border points in Hong Kong are carrying out temperature checks of passengers, with visitors also required to complete a health declaration.

CNN correspondent Andrew Brown contributed to this report.

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