It's Too Early to Close Book on SARS: WHO Official

It is too early to "close the book"on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) despite the fact that the disease had been contained, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said here Monday.

"If we are to avoid a similar crisis, we have to greatly improve surveillance and preparedness against emerging and re-emerging diseases," Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, said in a report delivered at the 54th session ofthe regional committee.

He said human-to-human transmission of the SARS virus had been halted thanks to swift and decisive action by WHO and its members."The dedication of front-line health workers, combined with strongpolitical commitment at the national level, averted a global health crisis," he added.

The Western Pacific region bore the brunt of the SARS outbreak,with more than 95 percent of cases worldwide. The virus had infected more than 8,000 people and claimed over 910 lives in the world as of August.

SARS is among the health issues that will be discussed in more detail later by representatives from the 37 members in the region at the five-day meeting of the regional committee, which opened Monday.

Omi also reported to the regional committee that the number of tuberculosis patients with access to directly observed treatment, short-course (DOTS) has increased significantly.

However, he said, "There is still a long way to go before we achieve the targets of a 70-percent case detection rate and regionwide DOTS coverage, and we are just over two years away fromour target date."

He told representatives that HIV/AIDS continues to be a major public health concern. "By 2005, we estimate that there will be 120,000 people living with AIDS in the region," he said as he urged the member countries to give full support to the global target of providing antiretroviral drugs to three million people living with AIDS by the year 2005.

In the fight against tobacco control, Omi urged all countries to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and implement soonest possible its recommendations, including imposingrestrictions on tobacco ads, sponsorship and promotion.

In spite of the health gains, he said, many challenges lie ahead if the region is to have healthy communities and populations.

Omi, 54, a Japanese citizen, was nominated by the regional committee Monday for another five-year term as the regional director. His nomination is subject to confirmation by the WHO Executive Board, which will convene in Geneva in January 2004. Omiwas elected WHO regional director in May 1998.

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