Gov’t, Health Officials Meet to Discuss SARS

Top government officials met at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Monday in the largest inter-ministerial meeting Cambodia has held to discuss the country’s status in the global war against severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong joined Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot, National Police Chief Hok Lundy and health sector representatives to determine talking points for the impending Asean meeting on SARS, which will be held April 29 in Bangkok, said Long Visalo, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Participants of Monday’s meeting decided that more working groups were needed to assess and fortify the government’s efforts to protect the country against SARS, which has killed 218 people worldwide, a Health Mini­stry official said on condition of anonymity.

Officials also decided that more quarantine officials were needed at border checkpoints, a suggestion also offered by the Council of Ministers in a letter to the Health Ministry, said Dr Sok Touch, director of the ministry’s Com­municable Disease Department.

Before the proposed measures can be enacted, they first must be approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who will head the Asean meet­ing, the health official said.

Participants Monday also noted that Cambodia still needs more protective masks, said the World Health Organization’s Dr Veron­ique Bortolotti. The WHO has solicited donor support to purchase masks for health and border officials throughout the country but is still waiting for the funds to be ap­proved and for a global shortage of surgical masks to pass, she said.

“Because Cambodia has not yet reported cases, it may not be the top priority country [to receive masks],” Bortolotti said. “But we may have some positive answers by the end of the week.”

The shortage should not be a cause for alarm, however, since SARS is not in Cambodia, said Seng Seak Huy, Hong Sun Huot’s secretary. He said hospital workers were not ordered to don protective gear but airport officials should wear masks, since they face a greater risk of exposure to tourists who have traveled from  SARS-affected areas.

As top officials in Phnom Penh prepared for the regional SARS summit Monday, national health workers reported their efforts to protect the country against the disease had been delayed by the Khmer New Year.

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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