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Health Body Lifts Travel Advisories to Parts of China

WHO says SARS is under control in Hong Kong and Guangdong province. Restrictions remain in place elsewhere.

May 24, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

The World Health Organization on Friday rescinded its warning against unnecessary travel to Hong Kong and the Chinese province of Guangdong -- the original epicenters of the SARS epidemic -- saying the disease has been brought under control.

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the director-general of the U.N. agency, said in a statement released by WHO that "Guangdong province was the first place in the world to have cases of SARS, but I am pleased to note that ... the outbreaks in Guangdong and Hong Kong are being contained."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa welcomed the lifting of the travel advisory. But he noted in a statement released by his government that much remains unknown about the virus, "so we need to be really on guard at all times."

In Hong Kong, the average number of new cases a day has remained below five over the last six days and "the pattern of the outbreak shows a sustained decline since the peak of new cases in late March," according to the WHO statement.

The total number of people who remain contagious -- all of whom are hospitalized -- has fallen below 60, and all new cases in the last 20 days have occurred among people who were known contacts of previous SARS victims, the agency reported. There also have been no recent reports of SARS cases exported from Hong Kong.

Similarly, in Guangdong province, the average number of new cases a day has been below five for 11 days and the number of SARS patients in hospitals fell below 60 on Tuesday.

The WHO travel warning remains in effect for Taiwan, as well as for China's Hebei and Shanxi provinces, the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, and the Inner Mongolia region.

The lifting of the travel advisories elsewhere is a hopeful sign, but Asia's economic troubles are far from over because skeptical businesspeople and travelers are unlikely to rush back to the region, particularly when the disease is still not under control in Taiwan.

"We're not trusting enough to fly there yet," said Edward Meadows, president of CenDyne, a Santa Ana importer of CD-DVD drives, CD burners and MP3 players that has been forced to delay the launch of a new product for at least two months because of SARS.

"We're going to wait a couple weeks and see."

The most likely beneficiaries of the WHO's move would be hotels, airlines and other travel-related industries in Asia, because people with urgent business or relatives in the region might be reassured enough to resume their travels.

"We're elated to hear the news from the WHO," said Jeff Ruffolo, a spokesman for China Southern Airlines, which is based in Guangzhou in Guangdong province.

"We really want to build up our business traffic again."

Before the SARS outbreak, China Southern had four flights a week from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, but the airline has been forced to slash the service to two flights a week.

But executives pointed out that conflicting information from the U.N. health agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which still had travel advisories for southern China and Hong Kong, made it difficult for organizations to determine whether it was safe to go back to the hard-hit region.

Richard Drobnick, vice provost for international affairs at USC, said his institution -- which has canceled programs affecting 250 students in Asia -- would not lift its SARS-related travel restrictions until the CDC removed its warnings.

Even then, he said, it might be months before the university resumes its programs in the region.

USC medical school officials told Drobnick that they would not go to China until a month after the travel restrictions were lifted and would not send students back to the region for at least three months.

"They are going to err on the side of caution," he said.

Amid the ebb and flow Friday of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, WHO reported on its Web site that there were 8,117 cases and 689 deaths.

Taiwan reported 55 new SARS cases Friday, slightly fewer than the 60 cases the day before. That brings the total there to 538 cases and 60 deaths, trailing only mainland China and Hong Kong.

*

Times staff writers Evelyn Iritani and James F. Peltz contributed to this report.

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