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SARS Under Control in Singapore, WHO Says

June 01, 2003|Richard C. Paddock and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

SINGAPORE — This island nation, one of the hardest hit by the SARS outbreak, officially brought the disease under control Saturday after halting the spread of the virus for the last 20 days.

The World Health Organization in Geneva announced that Singapore was being removed from its list of countries where the pneumonia-like disease is known to be spreading.

"From the start, Singapore's handling of its SARS outbreak has been exemplary," said Dr. David Heymann, WHO's executive director for communicable diseases. "This is an inspiring victory that should make all of us optimistic that SARS can be contained everywhere."

The announcement was welcomed by Singaporeans, whose economy is expected to lose $900 million because of a drastic drop in the number of visitors. Residents hope that international recognition of the country's success in controlling severe acute respiratory syndrome will ease foreign travelers' minds. "We are happy this thing is under control," store clerk Maria Ng Soek Wai said before the announcement. "It is a good thing that Singapore is free of SARS and the people will come back. Singapore is very safe."

Singapore's first cases of atypical pneumonia were reported March 9 before SARS was recognized as a disease that spread easily in hospitals. In all, 206 people came down with SARS, including 31 who died, ranking Singapore fourth on the list of locations affected by the disease -- behind mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Although many Singaporeans interpreted WHO's announcement to mean that the country is "SARS-free," nine patients remain hospitalized, including four in intensive care.

Most of the island's cases originated with a Singaporean traveler who brought the disease back from Hong Kong and spread it to health-care workers, friends and family members. Some of them, in turn, spread the disease to others.

WHO praised Singapore's efforts to control the disease, which included school closings, aggressive contact tracing, thermal-imaging scanners to check people's temperatures in public places, and home quarantine monitored by video cameras connected to the Internet.

Singapore, which is known for its autocratic style of government, warned that the nation must remain vigilant so that any new cases that arrive from abroad are quickly identified and isolated.

"Notwithstanding the WHO announcement, there will be no pause in our efforts to maintain and further enhance all our existing measures to isolate and contain the disease and to prevent any export of the disease beyond our shores," the Health Ministry said in a statement.

In particular, the country of 4 million people will continue its program of temperature monitoring, which doctors say is the best way to detect and isolate the virus before it can spread.

Thermometers are being distributed to every household in the hope that all Singaporeans will take their temperature daily. Many workers, especially those who have contact with the public, are required to take their temperature at the start of their shifts and wear a sticker showing that they have no fever -- or, as some stickers say, that they are "officially cool."

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who arrived in Singapore on Friday for a meeting with Asian defense ministers, checked into the posh Shangri-La Hotel to find a thermometer and a package of antiseptic wipes on his bedside table. The items are now standard hotel issue. Singapore was on the verge of declaring the disease contained two weeks ago when a traveler who had entered the country from neighboring Malaysia was identified as a probable SARS patient. His case was the only one identified in May.

"The absence of local transmission for twice the incubation period means that neither residents nor travelers are at risk of acquiring SARS in Singapore," WHO said in its announcement.

With its aggressive contact tracing, Singapore was able to determine the source of infection in every case but one, officials said. "Our government is very good. [It] really took action," said Dorin Wong, 32, a hotel gift shop clerk. "It knows how to control everything."

*

Paddock reported from Jakarta, Indonesia, and Efron from Singapore.

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