Vietnam beats SARS, but Asia still at risk

NEW DELHI – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a form of pneumonia, is spreading across Asia. Thousands are in hospitals and the death toll is several hundred. The most affected nations are China including Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines and Burma. In India, 13 cases have been reported and nine have died.

Vietnam, however, will become the first SARS-infected country to be declared free of the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), raising hopes the killer disease can be beaten worldwide.

“Vietnam will come off the list today,” said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson, on April 28, backing up an earlier statement by the Vietnamese Health Ministry. Vietnam has seen 63 infections of the new flu-like disease, including the deaths of five medical workers.

But the last case was reported on April 8, some three weeks ago and more than double the believed incubation period which WHO has set as the benchmark for deciding when any outbreak has been fully controlled.

This disease is not only taking valuable lives, but ruining the Asian economy as well, which impacts the world economy. World economic growth has been scaled down to 2.3 percent for 2003 from an earlier forecast of 2.8 percent.

Millions of workers on the Asian continent will face the repercussions. Travel, tourism, electronics and retail industries, especially in Hong Kong and Singapore, have experienced a major downturn due to SARS. The airline industry, which has been severely affected by war in Iraq, is now in deeper trouble. Travelers are canceling trips to Asia and business groups are calling off conferences. China and Malaysia have already closed major airports and ports.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned in a recent statement that the overall economic fallout of the SARS crisis for worst-affected nations would be significant as tourism and retail sectors suffered major blows. The warning, included in its report on the global economy, came after the World Bank cited the deadly virus as one factor behind a cut in its East Asia growth forecast.

The Chinese government said while there has been improvement in the situation, there were still places where it remained serious.

“Much progress has been made in combating the disease so far, with the epidemic brought under control in some areas, but the overall situation remains grave,” said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org