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SARS Lessons Learned

Asia Pacific health ministers pledged Saturday to share more information about SARS and other infectious diseases to stem future epidemics that could threaten the region's public and economic health.

While screening measures have lowered the risk of the virus spreading, "we are fully aware…that this is only the start," the ministers from Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum countries said in a joint statement.

"Controlling SARS requires continued vigorous surveillance and containment of new cases, intensive regional and global collaboration," said the statement, a 14-point plan calling for greater cooperation in fighting the virus.

The ministers agreed to share all relevant information immediately with the World Health Organization and through an APEC network set up to monitor emerging diseases. They also resolved to support plans to revive tourism and trade.

"Early resumption of normal business travel and tourism is essential for overcoming the economic damage caused by SARS in recent months," the ministers said.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told the ministers that SARS had caused more rapid economic damage than the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and warned that "there is no telling when it will re-emerge."

He said the disease had revealed weaknesses in regional public health systems, and that screening measures needed to be improved so each country could better cope with future outbreaks of SARS or other diseases.

He said much was still unknown about the virus, such as whether it is seasonal.

The meeting Saturday was organized to complement a World Health Organization conference last week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at which the SARS epidemic was declared "dead in its tracks."

The WHO meeting focused on scientific and health issues related to SARS, while Saturday's APEC conference also considered economic implications.

David Heymann, WHO's executive director for communicable diseases, cautioned Saturday that although new cases have fallen to zero in recent days, the SARS scare "certainly won't be over for another year" because the next phase is "intense surveillance for the next year to see whether the virus is still present or whether it's gone."

To date, there have been 8,450 cases of SARS and 810 deaths. Not a single death was reported in the United States, where at last count the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as tracking 343 suspected cased and 74 probable cases.

In east and southeast Asia, the disease has claimed a heavy toll on the region's economy by strangling tourism and business travel.

APEC's members are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, United States and Vietnam.

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