Asean Health Officials Draw SARS Plans

Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot returned Sunday from an Asean health ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur carrying a regional agreement on measures to slow the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, including more screening at international departure points and a bar on travelers showing symptoms of the virus.

“I’m sure that Cambodians couldn’t carry SARS. We are careful with other diseases that affect people’s health, but we pay more attention to SARS because it’s [carries] a higher risk than other diseases, even HIV/AIDS,” Hong Sun Huot said.

No SARS cases have been diagnosed in Cambodia, a fact that won Cambodia praise from other Asean ministers, Hong Sun Huot said.

The minister attributed Cam­bodia’s ability to avoid SARS to the preventive measures it enacted early in the global outbreak. Quarantine areas have been estab­lished at the airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as in the Siem Reap Chil­dren’s Hospital and the capital’s Calmette Hospital. Ten medical teams have been deployed to all provincial health departments and land, sea and air border checkpoints.

Other nations have not been as lucky as Cambodia. SARS has killed at least 293 people and infected more than 4,600 worldwide..

“The threat posed by SARS is unprecedented,” said the regional director of the World Health Organization, Shigeru Omi, at the meeting in Malaysia. “The virus has already demonstrated its explosive power to cause sudden outbreaks in a large number of countries. Tourism has almost disappeared. Normal life has been seriously disrupted.”

In the first week of April, the number of travelers visiting Cambodia dropped 40 percent in comparison to the same time span in 2002, Tourism Minister Veng Sereyvuth said earlier this month. Several airlines have had to reduce the number of flights running between Singapore and Hong Kong and Phnom Penh on account of the economic blow SARS has dealt to the industry.

“We must be absolutely relentless in our search for every possible SARS case. We must use every weapon at our disposal,” Omi told the health ministers and senior officials from Southeast Asia, China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

Omi said Saturday’s meeting in Kuala Lumpur and a Southeast Asian leaders’ summit in Thailand next week could “determine the future course” of how nations handle SARS.

The ministers agreed on a plan already proposed by the Cambodian government and the World Health Organization, including increased screening at international departure points, a ban on travelers with SARS symptoms, and required health declaration forms for visitors from affected countries.

In a joint declaration, they stressed that their countries “could tackle the challenges posed by this deadly virus only by strengthening our collective efforts regionally as well as internationally.”

Malaysian Health Minister Chua Jui Meng said Asians’ ability to easily travel worldwide was “creating an alarming potential” for the outbreak to widen further.

“Should SARS continue to spread, the global economic consequences could be great in a closely interconnected and interdependent world,” Chua said.

Chua said the measures approved by the ministers would be presented to national leaders at their summit in Bangkok before formal implementation.

China’s Deputy Health Minister Huang Jiefu said Saturday’s meeting underscored the need for Asian countries to be “united together as a team to fight the epidemic.”

Only Vietnam did not participate in Saturday’s discussions, which were also attended by Canadian observers.

The ministers also agreed that Southeast Asian countries should consider jointly setting up a disease control center, which Malaysia has said could help fight new disease outbreaks.

Before departing for Bangkok on Tuesday, Hong Sun Huot said, he will consult with a representative from the WHO about Cambodia’s SARS status.

(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)

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