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WHO flashes first-ever fever travel alert

Hong Kong, April 2 (Reuters): The World Health Organization urged travellers today to avoid Hong Kong and China’s southern Guangdong province, where hundreds more cases of a deadly pneumonia virus were reported, and said it did not think the disease had peaked.

It was the first warning the UN body has ever issued for health reasons. Earlier travel warnings were concerned with war or other conflicts.

It came as economists sounded a warning that some Asian economies were facing one of their biggest challenges since the 1997/98 financial crisis.

Investment house Morgan Stanley said it had reduced its 2003 economic growth forecast for East Asia excluding Japan to 4.5 per cent from 5.1 per cent due to the viral outbreak.

Malaysia and Thailand, alarmed by the rapid spread of the disease which has killed nearly 80 people worldwide, both announced tougher measures to try and keep it at bay.

Malaysia, which borders Singapore where four have died from the disease, banned the hiring of new workers from affected areas. Thailand warned all tourists from infected areas to wear masks at all times or face six months in jail and a fine.

The WHO warning followed a jump in the global death toll with China, Canada, Hong Kong and Thailand reporting more victims of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which has been spread around the globe by travellers.

“We have decided to make a recommendation that people planning to travel to Hong Kong and Guangdong consider postponing,” said David Heymann, WHO’s head of communicable diseases in Geneva.

Four per cent of SARS victims die. While the rest should recover, many develop severe pneumonia which requires hospitalisation for a few weeks and treatment with strong medication, which can cause birth defects. Doctors said women who have recovered should not conceive for the next six months.

Nearly 2,300 people worldwide have been infected by the virus, which originated in Guangdong in November.

China, which has finally agreed to allow WHO experts to visit Guangdong, revealed sharply higher numbers today after weeks of silence. It said 46 people had died from the disease in the country, most of them in Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong.

Nearly 1,190 have been infected, some from the provinces of Sichuan, Guangxi and Hunan which had not previously revealed the presence of the disease. But China has repeatedly stressed the situation was under control and that hundreds have recovered.

Chinese health minister Zhang Wenkang told state television the outbreak was “under control”.

His interview marked the first time senior leaders had publicly addressed the crisis.

“Starting in March, the illness has gradually been brought under effective control,” Zhang told China Central Television.

Zhang said the outbreak may not have originated in the southern province of Guangdong, although experts widely suspect that it did. He compared SARS to AIDS, which was first discovered in the US but did not originate there.

State television said the policy-making state council, or cabinet, had called for measures to “eliminate the epidemic situation in a few areas at its roots”. The meeting was chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao.

In Hong Kong, 16 people have died from SARS and 23 new cases reported today took the total of those infected to 708.

The WHO travel warning, and a matching British government travel advisory, are a further blow to the territory’s economy, which has suffered a recession and numerous health scares since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Tourism is one of the financial hub’s key revenue earners.

Asian airlines, hotels and other tourist-reliant industries have already reported widespread travel cancellations.

“The damage is incalculable,” said Manus Pipatananan, president of the Thai Travel Agents Association which groups over 500 outbound tour operators.

“I would say 98 per cent of all outbound tour bookings for the peak month of April have been cancelled,” Manus said.

“Even without this warning no one is coming to Hong Kong,” said consultant Janice Lo in Hong Kong after the WHO statement.

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