Sars still out of control, warns WHO director

Ian Black in Brussels and John Gittings
Wednesday May 7, 2003
The Guardian,13036,950786,00.html
The World Health Organisation said yesterday that the Sars outbreak in China was still out of control, despite increasingly tough quarantine measures.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, its Norwegian director general, told EU health ministers in Brussels that there was "still a considerable number of cases every day", adding: "We have not seen a peak in China yet."

The Chinese media reported that the eastern city of Nanjing, on the Yangtze river, had put 10,000 people into quarantine centres, of whom it said 600 had been in direct contact with victims elsewhere. The city had already reported four confirmed cases, and yesterday an official said it had not yet finished compiling quarantine statistics.

Mass quarantine is becoming the preferred response of the authorities all over China as they belatedly struggle to control the outbreak. In Beijing, where more than 16,000 are in quarantine, 4,000 teams have been sent out to scour Haidian, the city's worst affected district, for cases.

Motorola closed its Beijing office and told 1,000 employees to work from home after one became infected.

Europe has so far been relatively unscathed: 33 probable cases have been reported in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, Poland and Spain. No one has died.

Mrs Brundtland was taking part in an emergency meeting of health ministers from the 25 current and future EU states on the outbreak, which has now killed more than 400 people in Asia and Canada.

She said the latest reports showed a continuing rise and spread of the highly contagious flu-like disease.

Worldwide more than 6,300 cases have now been reported, the biggest number in China, where officials reported eight new deaths and 138 new cases yesterday, bringing total deaths there to 214.

EU countries were urged to remain vigilant about the virus and to set up a centre for disease prevention and control to coordinate their responses.

No new plan was put forward at the Brussels talks, but ministers were examining ways to improve the coordination of their health policies to prevent the disease taking hold on the continent.

The European commission is already coordinating national efforts through the European network for surveillance of communicable diseases, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the individual countries.

The commission collects daily reports from all EU countries and the 10 which will joining next year.

The British junior health minister David Lammy was among those taking part in yesterday's talks.

The EU health commissioner, David Byrne, backed by Mrs Brundtland, called on ministers to give the commission greater powers to tackle the spread of communicable diseases.

"This has been a wakeup call for the world and Europe as well," Mr Byrne said.

"I have more powers over animal diseases than human diseases. This is not a satisfactory situation."

The most recent cases in the EU are in Italy, which has reported one Canadian and three Chinese nationals in the country infected, bringing the number of confirmed infections there to eight.

The Italian health minister, Girolamo Sirchia, urged EU-wide screening of air passengers arriving from China.

Several countries, including Germany and Belgium, have not begun screening passengers in from China and other affected countries, relying on pre-flight checks.

British Airways said yesterday that Sars was partially to blame for the reduction by almost a third in the traffic on its Asia Pacific routes compared with last year.