Beijing celebrates as WHO lifts travel warning

THE World Health Organisation lifted its travel warning against Beijing yesterday, giving a clean bill of health to the capital of the nation where the SARS outbreak began.

Beijing was the last place in the world under a WHO advisory urging travellers to avoid nonessential travel because of concerns about severe acute respiratory syndrome, which first surfaced in southern China in November.

Toronto and Taiwan remain on a WHO list of places with recent local transmissions of the disease, but travel advisories against them have been lift.

The SARS crisis peaked in March and April before ebbing worldwide as officials moved to isolate patients in quarantines and screen travellers for symptoms. The disease killed more than 800 people, and infected more than 8,400.

Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the western Pacific region, said the decision to lift the Beijing advisory was based on factors including the number of current SARS cases, quality of surveillance and the effectiveness of prevention measures.

"After careful analysis, WHO has concluded that the risk to travellers to Beijing is now minimal," Omi said yesterday.

Beijing also was simultaneously removed from a WHO list of places with recent local transmissions of the disease. Removal from this list comes after a place has gone 20 days since isolating its last confirmed case of SARS defined as twice the incubation period of the disease.

"WHO concluded that the chain of person-to-person transmission in Beijing has been broken," Omi said.

The number of people hospitalised with SARS in Beijing fell to just 43 yesterday , the Health Ministry said. That was down from more than 1,000 at the height of the epidemic, which prompted Beijing to build a special SARS isolation facility.

Airlines, hotels and other travel-dependent businesses welcomed the end of the WHO advisory. They were devastated as Chinese and foreign tourists and businesspeople heeded warnings to avoid Beijing and other SARS-affected areas. Chinese airlines said passenger numbers nationwide fell by up to 83% in May.

"It is a monumental affair for the recovery of the Chinese civil aviation industry," said Cai Zhizhou, chief spokesman for China Southern Airlines, the country's biggest carrier. Cai said the airlines should recover gradually but "pretty fast".

A senior Chinese health official said authorities will temporarily continue checking travellers for fevers a possible sign of SARS at airports and bus stations.

"We must not let down our vigilance," said Gao Qiang, the executive deputy health minister. Normal life has begun to resume in Beijing as numbers of new SARS deaths and cases fell over the past month, down sharply from mid-May, when China was reporting more than 150 new cases a day.

Schools, cinemas and other public facilities, ordered closed in April, have begun to reopen, though some classes aren't scheduled to resume until late July.

Bars and hotels that closed for lack of customers at the height of the outbreak also have begun to reopen, though many say business is still slow.

The Jinjiang Travel Agency in Shanghai said it would promote tours to Beijing for students in July and August following the lifting of the travel advisory.

"Our staff have been in place to restart work immediately after the advisory was lifted," said a manager of the agency who would give only his surname, Zhu.

Also yesterday, the Chinese Culture Ministry announced that it would hold a symphony concert at the Great Wall on Saturday to celebrate "the Chinese people's battle" against SARS, the official Xinhua News Agency announced.

In Bangkok, Thailand, Asian officials met with WHO representatives yesterday to discuss strategies for preventing a recurrence of the SARS outbreak.

More than 60 delegates from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as China, Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea gathered to map out ways of detecting and containing SARS.

ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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