Hong Kong confident of beating SARS

QUARANTINE measures appear to be paying off in Hong Kong’s fight against SARS and its leader voiced growing confidence about beating the disease. But experts said yesterday it’s unclear when the crisis will end.

The number of new cases reported daily seems to be declining in hard-hit Hong Kong. Some doctors, however, say there needs to be a sharper, more sustained drop before anyone can say Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is under control.

"My prediction is in three months' time Hong Kong can return to almost normal, not completely normal," said Dr Lo Wing-lok, president of the Hong Kong Medical Association.

Dr Lo, an infectious disease expert and a lawmaker, said under his projected scenario, SARS would mostly be contained but that Hong Kong "might see sporadic cases."

Hong Kong took a step toward normalcy yesterday when 200,000 students returned to school after a three- week closure. But students and teachers were told to wear surgical masks and have their temperatures taken daily. Younger students were still staying home and a few schools refused to open.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said Monday that Hong Kong was "slowly but surely getting the figures stabilised" and added he was increasingly optimistic about containing SARS.

The disease now has sickened more than 1,400 people in Hong Kong and killed 99. The five people whose deaths were reported yesterday were elderly, with other chronic illnesses.

Hong Kong reported 32 new SARS cases yesterday, following back-to- back reports of 22 each on Sunday and Monday, the lowest totals this month.

Experts call that decline encouraging, but said Hong Kong needs to see lower numbers for more than just a few days.

"If it got down to single digits, it wouldn't mean Hong Kong was out of the woods, but it would be an indication things are contracting in Hong Kong rather than expanding," said Henry Niman, a Harvard University instructor who teaches surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The World Health Organisation said Monday the death toll from SARS was 217.

Hong Kong recently began quarantining anyone in the households of recent SARS victims, while stepping up efforts to find potential contacts. Tung said Monday those efforts led to 150 suspected cases being detected and getting early treatment.

Although Mr Tung expressed optimism about defeating SARS, he has not predicted how soon that could happen and officials have not said what would need to be seen before claiming victory. The Hong Kong health secretary, Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong, acknowledged yesterday that SARS "is going to be with us for some time."

"We do not anticipate that it will be eradicated completely, because it's a highly infectious virus," Dr Yeoh said.

Mr Niman warned that Hong Kong's efforts to contain SARS could suffer because of proximity to mainland China, where the situation threatens to spin out of control.

Mainland China has had at least 97 SARS deaths and its total of reported cases topped 2,000 yesterday.

Critics have accused mainland officials of covering up information about the disease, aggravating the outbreak from the beginning, although Beijing now says fighting SARS is a priority.

In a new indication of their sense of urgency, Chinese officials broadcast a radio message across Beijing seeking two taxi drivers who may have contracted SARS from an infected "male passenger dressed in a long green military-style coat," the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday.

Both drivers eventually were found, Xinhua said, without providing further details.

SARS is believed to have emerged on the mainland last year and was spread to Hong Kong in February by a sick medical professor from Guangdong province. He apparently infected several people here who then carried SARS in airplanes to other places that have seen fatal outbreaks Canada, Singapore and Vietnam.

Although Hong Kong says most SARS patients recover, there is still no known cure for the disease.

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