HONG KONG: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised travellers not to go to Guangdong province in southern China and here because of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
The alert is a step up in terms of health warning compared to the two earlier ones issued by the organisation on March 12 and March 27.
It is believed to be the first travel advisory WHO has issued without recommending vaccination or drugs.
Kuala Lumpur extended the advisory by strongly advising Malaysians to immediately stop travelling to several other countries hit by SARS – Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Canada – until further notice.
The latest WHO warning comes in the light of a new outbreak of the disease at Amoy Garden, an apartment complex here, and a report that there were still new cases of infection in Guangdong.
“As a measure of precaution, WHO is now recommending that persons travelling to Hong Kong and Guangdong Province of China consider postponing non-essential travel.
“This temporary recommendation will be reassessed in the light of the evolution of the epidemic in the areas currently indicated, and other areas of the world could become subject to similar recommendations if the situation demands,” the global health body said yesterday in a statement from its headquarters in Geneva.
At a press briefing in Geneva earlier, WHO infectious diseases chief Dr David Heymann said there were two reasons – the means of transmission and international infection – for issuing the travel advisory against Hong Kong.
“We do not completely understand the means of transmission in Hong Kong, and because since March 15, nine people returned from Hong Kong to their countries with infection, we have decided to make this recommendation,” Dr Heymann said.
“In Hong Kong, it appears that there is something in the environment that is transferring the virus, which is serving as a vehicle to transfer the virus from one person to another,” Dr Heymann added.
For the advisory on travel to Guangdong, Dr Heymann said the province had only just reported that there were 361 SARS cases and nine deaths last month.
In Putrajaya, Transport Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik said the Foreign Ministry would issue an advisory, adding that the people’s co-operation was important to stop the disease from spreading.
“There are between 500 and 600 cancellations a day now of flight bookings to countries affected by SARS while KL International Airport saw a 3% drop in passengers.
“The Cabinet is very concerned over SARS. We must protect Malaysians from the disease because there is no cure or vaccine so far,” he told reporters after the Cabinet meeting here.
He said that those who have to travel to the affected countries would have to bear the risk themselves.
On the thousands who commute between Johor and Singapore daily because of work, he said: “We (the Transport Ministry) are not the main agency but will give 100% co-operation because Malaysians must be protected.”
Dr Ling said his ministry would co-operate with all relevant ministries, particularly the Health Ministry, to take preventive measures at ports, airports and railways.
He commended Malaysia Airlines staff for their quick action in spotting two passengers with symptoms during an inbound flight from Hanoi about a week ago.
He said the staff saw two passengers coughing and having a fever and immediately separated them from other passengers.
When the flight landed, eight passengers had displayed the symptoms and were immediately taken to Putrajaya Hospital for observation.
Doctors later confirmed they were not SARS cases.
Dr Ling said such steps inconvenienced travellers but the Government had to do everything possible to ensure Malaysians were protected.
Later in the night, Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng and Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Mohamed Taha Arif appeared in a forum on SARS, broadcast live over RTM1.
They explained steps being taken to curb entry of the disease into Malaysia and answered questions fielded by journalists.
When asked how the expected influx of Singaporeans for Qing Ming this weekend through the Causeway in Johor Baru was going to be handled, Chua said he believed that measures taken by Singapore Health Ministry had helped reduce the risk of the disease spreading to the country.
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