SARS outbreak unlikely according to World Health Organization

The regional head of the World Health Organization said today that it was possible the region would experience SARS cases this winter, but he doubted the situation would be serious. "I don't think a large outbreak is likely," said Dr Shigeru Omi, Regional Director of WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office.

Asia, including Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, are much better prepared for infectious diseases than they were last year, Dr Omi told a gathering at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club. However, he said the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus was almost certainly still present in the animal world in southern China, and, as long as it was, it would continue to be a threat.

Describing Hong Kong's three-month battle with SARS last year as "truly frightening times", Dr Omi praised the city's resilience and said its people had good reason to be proud of the way they had faced the challenge. "I have a special fondness for Hong Kong," he said. "I like to think of it as the 'plucky city'."

Dr Omi said the world owed Hong Kong a large debt. "What was learned here [during SARS] was passed on to health authorities around the world. That way the global community benefited from Hong Kong's skills and hard work."

SARS was no longer WHO's main concern, he said. The principal worry now was the threat of an influenza pandemic, possibly with "catastrophic consequences" for global health. "We believe that the world is closer now than at any time in recent years to an influenza pandemic," Dr Omi said, expressing concern that the avian influenza virus circulating in poultry in parts of Asia could mutate into a form that could pass easily from human to human. If a pandemic occurred, nowhere, including Hong Kong, would be spared, he said.

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