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SARS outbreak past its peak: WHO

Despite being upbeat about the disease, officials say one case can spark off an outbreak.
Despite being upbeat about the disease, officials say one case can spark off an outbreak.

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Mayo Clinic

BEIJING, China (CNN) -- The SARS epidemic has passed its peak worldwide but the threat of resurgence remains, World Health Organization officials watching the disease in the Chinese capital said Thursday.

China, where officials say Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome first emerged last November, reported no new probable cases and only two deaths, both in the northern province of Shanxi.

It was the 11th consecutive day in which China has recorded fewer than 10 new cases and the third day this week.

Beijing, for the second consecutive day, reported no new cases and no deaths on Thursday.

"We think the reported figures are believable for Beijing, but we need to remain vigilant," World Health Organization (WHO) adviser Anne Schuchat told a news conference Thursday.

"Now we dare to say that the SARS epidemic is over its peak period both globally and in China," Henk Bekedam, chief representative for the WHO in China. "This shows SARS can be contained -- this, despite the fact that we still have no vaccine or cure or diagnostic test."

Bekedam credits China for adopting anti-SARS measures, including early detection and isolation, contact-tracing and for having an informed, educated public about SARS.

Unlike their WHO colleagues in Manila and Geneva, who in recent days have been speaking critically of China's lack of cooperation and data-sharing, these WHO experts in Beijing credited China for "generally openness from officials" and "excellent cooperation from Beijing".

But these WHO officials called for continued vigilance to avoid a resurgence of outbreaks as happened in Toronto, where the disease resurfaced after an initial outbreak subsided.

"The challenge now is to eliminate it as a public threat," Bekedam said. "The surveillance system needs to be beefed up to be more sensitive and action-oriented so we can get all SARS cases."

He said the Chinese government is also thinking beyond SARS and is committed to setting up a stronger surveillance system and stronger public health system.

Bekedam said the WHO is considering lifting a travel advisory that recommends the cancellation of all nonessential travel to SARS-affected provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia in northern China.

But he said the WHO needs more information concerning the four regions from China's health officials before a decision would be made.

"We are close to a review of the travel advisory, but the WHO needs a little bit more information," he said. "What we can see in these four provinces is that they have had very few cases recently."

A team of WHO experts will visit Tianjin, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, all SARS affected areas, this week.

The total number of people infected in China remains at 5,329 with 336 fatalities. In Hong Kong, the territory's leader on Thursday hailed the lifting of a U.S. travel advisory as proof it was recovering from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

And with only new case being reported in Taiwan, the three areas of the world worst-hit by SARS appear to be on the road to recovery.

Between them, they have suffered about 90 percent of the 8,402 probable cases of SARS, with 772 fatalities, reported in more than two dozen countries since SARS first emerged.

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