WHO says large SARS outbreak unlikely this winter

Nov 30, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization's (WHO's) top official in the western Pacific said yesterday that SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) cases may return this winter but probably not in large numbers.

"I don't think a large outbreak is likely," Dr. Shigeru Omi, director of the WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office, said in a speech in Hong Kong. Omi was quoted in a WHO news release.

Omi said Asia is much better prepared for infectious diseases than it was a year ago. But he added that the SARS virus is almost certainly still circulating in animals in southern China and will continue to be a threat as long as it is present.

Omi praised Hong Kong for its handling of the large SARS outbreak there in 2003. Saying the world owes the city a large debt, he added, "What was learned here was passed on to health authorities around the world. That way the global community benefited from Hong Kong's skills and hard work."

He also said the threat of an influenza pandemic with possible "catastrophic consequences" has displaced SARS as the WHO's main concern. Because of the risk that the avian influenza virus circulating in poultry in Asia will evolve into a form that could easily spread among people, he said, "We believe that the world is closer now than at any time in recent years to an influenza pandemic."

Only a handful of SARS cases occurred last winter and spring, including four in southern China's Guangdong province in January and nine more in Beijing and the Anhui province of China in April. The WHO counted 8,096 cases worldwide, 774 of them fatal, in the initial SARS outbreaks from November 2002 through July 2003.

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