June 23, 2003 (CIDRAP News) The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Hong Kong free of local transmission of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) today, four months after the disease arrived from mainland China and began spreading through the city.
The WHO said in a news release that 20 days have passed since the last confirmed case of SARS in Hong Kong was isolated. Twenty days is twice the incubation period for SARS, signaling that the chain of transmission is broken, according to the WHO.
When the WHO declaration took effect, schoolchildren in the city ceremoniously removed their masks, which had become an essential part of their school uniform since the SARS outbreak began, according to Associated Press reports.
"Hong Kong has fought an arduous battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome. We now appear to have gained the upper hand," Dr. Margaret Chan, director of health for Hong Kong, said in a news release. "While we must not let down our guard, I believe we can all 'breathe a little easier' now."
Chan credited the government's multi-pronged strategy of "early detection, swift contact tracing, prompt isolation and quarantine, and effective containment" for bringing the outbreak under control.
While removal from the list may be reason to celebrate, Hong Kong's chief executive officer cautioned against complacency, "Yes, our name has been removed from the list, but from experiences everywhere else we have to remind ourselves that this could come again and we really have to be on high alert and we have to be on guard all the time," said Tung Chee Hwa in comments published on the Hong Kong health department's Web site.
Dr. David Heymann, executive director for communicable diseases at the WHO, called Hong Kong's progress in the SARS battle a very significant achievement. "Hong Kong, with its dense population and fluid border with China, had one of the hardest outbreaks to control," he said. "This success means that the whole world can now feel safer from the SARS threat."
The WHO praised Hong Kong for providing "open, honest, and abundant information about SARS" to the public and the media throughout the outbreak. The agency also applauded Hong Kong's scientists, epidemiologists, and clinicians for their work in tracking down source cases in the various clusters, identifying the SARS virus, and developing diagnostic tests, treatment protocols, and control measures.
Hong Kong experienced the second highest number of SARS cases and deaths, exceeded only by mainland China. As of today, the city has had 1,755 SARS cases with 296 deaths, according to the WHO. Worldwide, 8,459 people have contracted SARS and 805 have died. Today the WHO reported only two new cases of SARS since June 20.
As the rate of new cases drops, travel-related control measures recommended by WHO remain in only a few places. WHO is still recommending that travelers be screened for the illness when departing Beijing, Taiwan, and Toronto, and is also still advising people to consider postponing nonessential travel to Beijing.