WHO lifts travel restriction advisory on Beijing

BEIJING (AP) - The World Health Organization on Tuesday lifted a recommendation to avoid unnecessary travel to Beijing because of concerns about SARS. 

The announcement was made to applause at a news conference in Beijing by Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the western Pacific region. 

Omi said the decision to lift the advisory was based on consideration of factors including the number of current SARS cases, quality of surveillance measures and the effectiveness of prevention measures. 

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

Beijing was the last remaining place under a WHO travel advisory due to concerns about the global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that surfaced in southern China in November. 

The SARS crisis peaked in March and April before ebbing worldwide as officials isolated patients and screened travelers for symptoms. 

The disease has killed more than 800 people, and infected more than 8,400. 

Beijing also was simultaneously removed from a WHO list of places with recent local transmissions of the disease, leaving only Taiwan and Toronto on that list. 

Travel advisories for those two places already have been lifted. Taiwan's lifting came Monday. 

Removal from the second list comes after a place has gone 20 days since isolating its last confirmed case of SARS. 

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

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Earlier report 

BEIJING (AP) - A top World Health Organization official is visiting Beijing amid expectations the agency will lift a SARS travel advisory that has contributed to huge losses to the Chinese capital's tourism industry. 

Dr. Shigeru Omi was meeting top Chinese Health Ministry officials on Tuesday to discuss strengthened cooperation and "other subjects of mutual interest,'' the WHO's Beijing office said in a brief news release. 

Omi, WHO's regional director for the western Pacific, was to attend a news briefing with Chinese officials at 3:00 p.m. (0700 GMT), the office said. 

Beijing newspapers on Tuesday quoted a spokesman for the city anti-SARS task force saying Beijing has applied for a lifting of the advisory and expects that to happen "very soon.'' 

Liang Wannian, also a deputy director of the city Health Bureau, said Beijing has met WHO criteria including having fewer than 60 patients in hospital with severe acute respiratory syndrome and fewer than five new cases a day for three days. 

"We have achieved a new stage in victory against SARS,'' Liang was quoted saying by the Beijing Star Daily. 

WHO spokesman Bob Dietz said he could "neither confirm or deny'' that an announcement on the travel advisory might be made. 

Beijing is the last region in China still under the advisory, although the city has gone 12 days without reporting any new cases. 

Beijing accounts for more than half of China's 347 deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome. 

WHO officials have repeatedly expressed concern that city health authorities haven't traced how more than half of the cities cases caught the disease. 

The travel advisory, which urges people to delay any non-urgent trips to Beijing, has helped discourage international visitors, devastating the capital's travel industry. 

Combined with the effect of China's own domestic restrictions on travel between regions, the city will have seen almost 10 million fewer visitors in the first half of the year, costing the city's tourism businesses an estimated 16 billion (US$1.9 billion). 

Amid falling case numbers, authorities have gradual lifting of anti-disease measures that shut down schools and other public facilities in Beijing and curtailed travel. - AP 

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