| A giant panda watches a worker disinfect the area near its enclosure to prevent the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome at Wolong panda research base in China. (Reuters)
Kuala Lumpur, April 26 (Reuters): Asian health ministers battling to halt the spread of SARS called today for compulsory pre-departure checks on passengers at airports and seaports, as a WHO official warned any vaccine may be years away.
Rising death tolls declared by China and Hong Kong — the hardest hit by a disease that has killed at least 289 people worldwide and infected around five thousand — provided a sombre backdrop to ministerial talks near the Malaysian capital.
“It’s mandatory for all countries to undertake pre-departure screening,” Malaysian health minister Chua Jui Meng told a news conference, referring to a ministerial declaration.
“All SARS suspects, as well as probable cases, will not be allowed to travel, especially beyond their borders,” Chua said, summarising recommendations due before a SARS meeting of regional heads of government in Bangkok on Tuesday.
“This is something we probably have not seen since the HIV/AIDS endemic,” he added. “We have decided that international and regional cooperation is the major move we must undertake. There is no option for that.”
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has no known cure, has been carried to more than 20 countries by air travellers since it emerged in southern China late last year.
Canada, the country with most fatalities outside Asia, reported three more deaths in Toronto and eight new cases among health care workers, bringing the death toll to 19.
Health chiefs from China and Hong Kong were joined by others from South Korea, Japan and 10 Southeast Asian states.
World Health Organisation official Mark Salter said the search for an effective vaccine would take time.
“I think we are looking at two years, three years, maybe, before a vaccine,” he said, adding that WHO planned to pull together world vaccine experts next week to speed things along.
Asia, where the most deaths have occurred, has borne the brunt of SARS. It has battered economies, forcing governments to cut growth forecasts, and hit swathes of business from retail to airlines to tourism.
Singapore has so far suffered most among affected Southeast Asian nations, with 18 deaths, followed by Vietnam with five, and then Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, with two each. The disease has caused widespread alarm in mainland China and Hong Kong. China recorded seven new deaths, taking the toll reported to 122, with around three thousand cases, while Hong Kong raised its fatality count by six to 121, with 1,527 cases.
Media in Hong Kong said today a 28-year-old man was the youngest victim so far.
A respiratory infection with a mortality rate of about six per cent, SARS spreads via coughs and sneezes but can also be transmitted by touching contaminated objects.
The illness could be “China’s Chernobyl,” a disaster leading to more political openness in the Communist country, two former US ambassadors to China said in the US yesterday.
Former envoys Winston Lord and J. Stapleton Roy compared the SARS crisis to that faced by the Soviet Union 17 years ago at the time of the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl.
WHO and other groups have accused China of concealing the severity of the outbreak, robbing them of the opportunity to investigate it early and prevent it spreading. China responded by sacking the health minister and the mayor of Beijing for negligence.
In a widely expected move, China today named its most senior woman politician, Vice-Premier Wu Yi, already the “commander-in-chief” of its war on SARS, to serve concurrently as health minister, the official Xinhua news agency reported.