HONG KONG — The World Health Organization took Hong Kong off its list of SARS-infected areas yesterday amid signs the global outbreak is ebbing, but Beijing, Taiwan and Toronto remained on the list as experts warned against relaxing precautions.
Removal from the list indicates severe acute respiratory syndrome no longer is spreading in Hong Kong. WHO has credited old-fashioned quarantines with curbing the worldwide SARS outbreak but warned the illness could recur next winter.
“Hong Kong, with its dense population and fluid border with China, had one of the hardest outbreaks to control,” said Dr. David Heymann, chief of communicable diseases at the Geneva-based WHO. “This success means that the whole world can now feel safer from the SARS threat.”
Last month, the WHO lifted its advisory that the public consider postponing all but essential travel to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa was pleased with the WHO announcement, but he expressed sadness over the nearly 300 SARS deaths in the territory and cautioned, “This could come again.”
Hong Kong wants to avoid repeating what happened in Toronto, where a new outbreak was discovered after Canada’s largest city was declared SARS-free. Two persons died of SARS on Sunday in Toronto, raising the death toll there from the illness to 38.
“We advise Hong Kong to look at Toronto and learn the lesson of what can go wrong if you don’t maintain your vigilance,” WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said. “We are absolutely satisfied that Hong Kong is going to do that.”
Hong Kong’s removal from the WHO list was expected. Sunday was the 20th day since Hong Kong’s last confirmed SARS patient was put in isolation, which qualified the Chinese territory for removal from the WHO list.
Singapore and Hanoi were removed weeks ago. Mainland China said yesterday it had recorded no new SARS cases for 12 days, and Taiwan said it had recorded none for the past six. Neither reported any new deaths.
The virus has killed more than 800 people and sickened more than 8,400, mostly in Asia, since surfacing in southern China last year. The outbreak was controlled by isolating patients and screening travelers for fever, dry cough and aches.
Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said yesterday they have developed a diagnostic test for SARS that has an 80 percent accuracy rate and can determine the amount of virus carried in a patient’s blood. Previous diagnostic tests either were less accurate or could be used only two weeks after the onset of the disease.
Hong Kong marked its removal from the WHO list with “unmasking” events at schools, street parties and other low-key events. Bars in the popular Lan Kwai Fong district served free champagne.