The U.N. health agency declared Saturday that SARS was no longer spreading in the world’s last hotspot, Taiwan — closing a chapter in a battle with the often-deadly virus that ravaged Asia and infected thousands across the globe.
“Today is a milestone,” said Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the World Health Organization’s director-general, as she announced the news at the group’s headquarters in Geneva.
But as WHO scratched off Taiwan from its list of SARS-infected areas, Brundtland warned that the mysterious illness could make a comeback.
“The world is not SARS free. There are still close to 200 SARS patients in hospitals,” she said.
“It is possible that SARS cases have slipped through the surveillance net and we know that one single case can spark a new outbreak,” she added.
Taiwanese Premier Yu Shyi-kun told reporters he was “extremely happy” with the news.
“We can finally return to our normal lives,” he said.
SARS is believed to have originated in southern China, where the first known cases began appearing last November. From China, experts believe the flu-like illness jumped to Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore.
The highly contagious bug eventually traveled as far as South Africa and Canada, killing more than 800 people worldwide and infecting at least 8,400.
VIRUS SPREAD QUICKLY
Initially, Taiwan had great success fending off SARS. Officials grew confident that they had whipped the virus as the death tolls continued to climb in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
But in late April, the virus exploited weaknesses at Taiwanese hospitals, which failed to properly diagnose and isolate infected patients. SARS quickly spread in the capital, Taipei, and the deaths began accumulating.
Taiwan eventually became the world’s No. 3 SARS hotspot, with a total of 84 deaths and 682 infections.
But this island of 23 million people trailed far behind the top two places for SARS deaths and infections: China and Hong Kong.
Mainland China reported 348 deaths and more than 5,300 cases, while Hong Kong registered 298 deaths out of 1,755 infections.
China and Hong Kong were dropped from the SARS-infected list last week. WHO next removed Canada’s biggest city, Toronto, from the list last Wednesday. The city had the biggest outbreak outside of Asia, with 39 deaths and almost 250 cases.
To get off the WHO’s list, infected areas have to go 20 consecutive days without reporting a new infection. In Taiwan, the countdown began from June 15, the day the island’s most recent SARS patient was isolated in a hospital.
On Saturday, Dr. David Heymann, WHO’s executive director of communicable diseases, said in Geneva that WHO believed the virus has been contained.
But he warned against becoming complacent.
“We cannot let a false security develop over the containment which has occurred today because a false sense of security could become our worst enemy,” he said.
In recent days, Taiwanese have been making travel plans again and stripping off surgical masks they were required to wear on subways during the outbreak’s peak.
Mary Wei, a Taipei housewife, said she canceled plans to visit Seattle in May because her friends in America asked her not to come because of SARS fears.
“I didn’t blame them. People were scared of us,” she said.
But now she’s planning to take her U.S. trip next week.
“I’m glad SARS is over,” she said.