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Region vulnerable to SARS, says WHO

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) told IRIN on Thursday that despite no reported cases, Central Asian states were vulnerable to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that has killed more than 200 people and infected 5,000 others in neighbouring China.

"There is lots of travel between Mongolian China and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with few measures in place to prevent SARS from spreading," Bernard Ganter, WHO's regional adviser for communicable diseases, told IRIN from the Danish capital, Copenhagen.

Kazakhstan, which shares the longest border with China, has taken some steps to halt the spread of SARS. It had virtually closed its border with China, government spokesman Imangali Tasmagambetov, told AFP on Wednesday. "Only cargo is being allowed through, and Kazakhs returning as part of the evacuation of our citizens," he said.

Limiting movement across the 1,800-km border with western China was part of an intensification of measures intended to prevent SARS from entering Kazakhstan, Murat Ussataef, the WHO spokesman in the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty, told IRIN. "The government now understands the need to take these measures, with no cure yet and such a high mortality rate for SARS," he said.

Ganter said WHO was concerned that, like China, Central Asian governments might be slow to share accurate information on SARS, and that this could facilitate the spread of the disease. "Where there is no information flow, SARS can easily take hold, and then it is very difficult to contain," he said.

Beijing has been criticised for refusing to go public on the full extent of the disease. Many experts say the lack of transparency in China has allowed SARS to incubate and travel to many other countries in Asia and Europe. "We don't want this situation repeated in Central Asia," Ganter stressed.

However, the Kazakh government says it is fully prepared for any outbreak. "Two isolation hospitals in Almaty, for children and for adults, have prepared wards for admitting people suspected of having SARS. We are able to instantly expand and open 40- and 60-bed wards in these medical institutions if there is an outbreak of the disease," Dr Albert Askarov of the health ministry told IRIN from Almaty.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's smaller southern neighbour, Kyrgyzstan, has yet to close its border with China, although some preventive measures have been put in place.

Earlier Turkmenistan, to the southwest of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, announced that it was evacuating 14 Turkmen students from China as a preventive step. Tajikistan, where no cases of SARS have been reported, had suspended charter flights to China due to the danger of SARS being "brought" to the country, the Tajik health ministry announced in the capital, Dushanbe, on Wednesday.

WHO announced on Wednesday it was sharply raising its estimate of the SARS death rate to 14-15 percent. The disease is much worse for people older than 65, with more than half likely to die. The revisions are based on data from Canada, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, the UN agency said.

Until now the agency had put the rate at 6-10 percent, although a study earlier this week of patients in Hong Kong said the death rate was around 20 percent. Worldwide, at least 507 people have died from SARS and more than 7,000 infected.

For the latest information on SARS worldwide: www.who.int

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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