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HK prepares for future epidemics

By CNN's Marianne Bray

Mourners at the funeral of a Hong Kong doctor killed by SARS.
Mourners at the funeral of a Hong Kong doctor killed by SARS.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Hong Kong's leaders have asked a panel of international experts to help them prepare for future disease outbreaks, particularly if as feared the SARS virus hits again in force this winter.

The group, made up of nine medical experts from around the world, will review how the city dealt with the SARS crisis and come up with a report by September, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa told a news conference on Wednesday.

The three-month review of the health system would be about learning from the past to "make sure we can do better next time round. It is not directed against any person," Tung said.

The flu-like virus has killed 269 people and infected 1,728 in this city of 6.8 million people, after it jumped across the border from the neighboring southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Lawmakers and local residents have criticized Hong Kong officials for not being quick enough to crack down on the spread of SARS, for failing to protect front-line health care workers and for not closing down schools soon enough.

Of particular concern was the way the new virus ravaged hospitals, sickening many healthy doctors and nurses treating patients in the early stages of the disease.

Health authorities had to resort to controlling the disease though the age-old methods of isolation and quarantine.

In the firing line was Hong Kong's minister of health, Dr. E.K. Yeoh, the man at the center of the viral maelstrom. He has been responsible for pulling the expert panel together.

Hong Kong authorities have stopped short of taking the blame for failing to stop the rapid onset and spread of the disease, and have so far escaped the sackings and resignations that have befallen some of their counterparts in China and Taiwan.

But alongside saying SARS was his top priority, Hong Kong's leader on Wednesday said if another epidemic broke out this winter "I want to be better ready."

While the city has kept new infections to single digits for several weeks and has been lifted off a WHO travel advisory list, experts have warned SARS could yet return in force this winter, and because there is no vaccine and no effective treatment, it could become another endemic disease.

Fears of a SARS resurgence have spurred a huge international effort to battle the disease with labs around the world racing to come up with a cure and vaccine.

On Tuesday a University of Hong Kong team said they would test a possible vaccine on monkeys, but could not say whether it would be effective in humans or how long the tests would take.

If the cultured virus stimulated the production of antibodies, it could provide some immunity against the disease, which has killed more than 700 people around the world.

But experts have warned it would take years before any such product could be made commercially available, if at all.

Last week, scientists in Hong Kong and China said the virus had been found in several animals, including the civet cat, in a Shenzen food market.

Such animals are exotic culinary delights for Chinese, and experts suspect it is in this kind of setting that the virus jumped to humans, as many of the early SARS sufferers worked in the industry.

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