- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

BEIJING, March 28 (UPI) — The World Health Organization has confirmed China is the country of origin for severe acute respiratory syndrome, officials said Friday.

They reached this conclusion after looking at data provided by China's Guangdong province and its center for disease control under the Ministry of Health, they said.

Henk Bekedam, China's WHO representative, described talks with province and health officials as a "great success," adding, "I dare to say that China has very clearly become part of the global network in dealing with the disease."

He added, however, there still were serious problems with the mysterious, pneumonia-like illness.

"We still don't know the cause, we still don't know the treatment, and we still have many questions on how we can best prevent it," he told reporters at a news briefing.

"There are still definite areas where we think we can improve," he added, referring to the level of cooperation of Chinese officialdom.

"The government made a very clear commitment," said Dr. John S. Mackenzie, head of the WHO mission to China on the disease. He added talks between his organization and Chinese health and provincial officials had been, "cordial, frank, and open."

MacKenzie, professor and head of the Department of Microbiology and Parasitology at the University of Queensland, Australia, is an expert virologist in influenza, unusual diseases from animals, mosquito borne viruses and the emergence of new diseases.

"Chinese Vice Minister Ma (Xiaowei) attended the debriefing of our interim report and indicated his country is very committed and very clear in the direction to go," MacKenzie said.

"One of the most important issues was a compatible case definition usable to the WHO and the Chinese CDC," he said, adding this can be "achieved rapidly with only a few small modifications."

He cited as a major breakthrough that "most cases of what the Chinese were calling atypical pneumonia between mid-November and the end of February is SARS." It means the viral ground zero now is thought to be Guangdong province in southern China abutting Hong Kong.

"Comparing the epidemiological features in Guangdong with those elsewhere … most of the findings we have reinforce the concept these were indeed SARS cases, MacKenzie said.

WHO now is examining what the Chinese can do to deal with the epidemic, he said, including putting into effect better surveillance systems and getting official sanction from the government to nominate people quickly to join the world health network of laboratories looking into the origin of SARS.

"China will then become part of the global network on SARS in all responsible ways," MacKenzie said.

In another development, he said China also has agreed to update reports of its SARS cases quickly.

"It will be done through the Ministry of Health and they will be full, frank, numbers on a regular basis," he said.

Dr. Robert Breiman, head of Program on Infectious Diseases and Vaccine Sciences in Bangladesh, said, "There's a tremendous story here in terms of the magnitude of the problem and all the ways that have been used to approach the problem."

He added "we feel that we have a good understanding and we are encouraging additional information and studies to come out of China that will be helpful for the overall picture for this new agent of this serious disease."

James H. Maguire, an infectious disease specialist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said, "There's a tremendous amount of expertise and information and I believe the global community has an awful lot to learn from China and we're looking forward to that."

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