- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2003

HONG KONG Despite strict measures to keep Hong Kong residents from spreading SARS to other countries, authorities have been slow to implement similar measures for travelers entering from southern China, where the mysterious virus is most prevalent.
Health authorities say they are anxious not to disrupt the flow of goods and people across the border with mainland China. The cross-border exchange has grown dramatically since Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China in 1997.
All people boarding international flights from Hong Kong have been required since Thursday to undergo temperature checks, either with an "ear thermometer" or with scanners, which are being installed as quickly as possible.
But only random checks are being performed on visitors going to China, and it was only during the weekend that Hong Kong began calling for medical certificates from visitors coming to the territory from China.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, a strong advocate of increasing the number of visitors from China into Hong Kong, said he believed the measures were adequate for the time being "because … there are so many people coming and going every day and our wish is not to inconvenience … the travelers in any way."
Helen Chan, the director of health management, added: "It can take two to three minutes per person with the ear thermometer. With almost half a million people crossing the border, you can imagine the problems to visitors. We must balance time and inconvenience with the visitors' needs."
China had come under criticism from international health authorities for hiding the extent of the outbreak until this week, when the health minister and mayor of Beijing were demoted from Communist Party posts and the number of cases in the capital was raised dramatically.
China announced that 193 new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) had been reported since Friday, taking the nationwide tally to 2,001. The official news agency said 13 more persons had died of SARS in the same period. raising the total to 92.
A World Health Organization official, meanwhile, said China will find it difficult to contain the outbreak in its rural areas, which include much of Guangdong province bordering Hong Kong.
"If you do not have the resources to deal with SARS, I think we're going for a very big outbreak in China," Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China, told Reuters news agency.
"I think it will be quite a challenge to contain SARS within China, especially those provinces which have very limited resources," he said.
The disease is believed to have spread from Guangdong to Hong Kong, which reported another six deaths yesterday taking its SARS toll to 94, the highest in the world.
Dr. Chan said it is up to each country to set its immigration policies, but that Hong Kong and Guangdong medical and immigration authorities are working together to ensure medical screening efforts are not being duplicated.
"We are looking at objective standards both sides can agree to," she said, and a final set of criteria should be finalized next month.
Cooperation between Guangdong and Hong Kong authorities has improved substantially since early March, when Chinese authorities said the situation was under control and refused to share data with the WHO or Hong Kong medical authorities.
Chinese medical authorities have been more forthcoming with data since a secret visit to Guangdong province last week by Chinese President Hu Jintao and a meeting with Mr. Tung.
Even so, Hong Kong has no plans to advise residents against visiting China, though traffic across the border for the four-day Easter holiday was much lower than in past years.
"Travelers are being advised to be sensible," said Health Secretary Yeoh Eng-kiong. "We have given them the facts. Citizens can make their own decisions" about going to China.


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