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Central Asia: Tough Measures Taken To Prevent SARS Spread

  • Antoine Blua

While severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) continues to spread in China, no confirmed SARS cases have been reported yet in the nations of Central Asia. RFE/RL reports on drastic preventive measures being taken in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, all three of which share borders with China.

Prague, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has killed almost 500 people and infected close to 7,000 worldwide. Most of the cases have been in China, where the disease first appeared late last year. Eleven new fatalities were reported today in Hong Kong, five in China, and two in Taiwan.

No cases of SARS have been reported so far in either of the five Central Asian republics. However, these countries, particularly the three that share a border with China, are intensifying measures to prevent the virus from penetrating the region, including closing borders and recalling citizens from China.

In Tajikistan, Yusuf Ahmadov of the Transport Ministry told RFE/RL that the country has suspended all flights to and from China until the end of May. Sources in the Tajik Health Ministry yesterday told ITAR-TASS that border guards have taken what they called "preventive measures" at the borders with China and Kyrgyzstan. They did not elaborate.

Tajik citizens are also being warned against traveling to those regions in the world most affected by SARS. Deputy Health Minister Ziyoidin Afgonov told RFE/RL, "We recommend citizens of Tajikistan avoid traveling to countries that are most affected by SARS, including China, Singapore, Canada, and Vietnam, if not urgently required."

Singapore, Vietnam, and Canada have largely contained their SARS outbreaks, while new cases continue to plague China, especially in Beijing. The Tajik government says it is considering recalling 12 Tajik citizens who are currently studying in China. In Kazakhstan, which shares a 1,740-kilometer border with China, the Ministry of Transport and Communications has been instructed to temporarily suspend regular air, railway, and road traffic with China.

Kazakh Health Minister Zhaqsylyq DosqAliyev yesterday told reporters that measures are being taken to recall Kazakh citizens who are in China. According to the Foreign Ministry, 67 Kazakh students, 13 employees of Kazakh companies, and 24 staff members of the Kazakh Embassy are currently in the country.

People arriving in Kazakhstan from China also will be subjected to a weeklong quarantine. DosqAliyev said Kazakhstan has laboratories in which the disease can be identified within 24 hours. He said more than 200 isolation wards have been prepared at hospitals and that Kazakh health workers have undergone about 2,000 hours of special SARS training. Airline, railroad, and travel-agency workers have also received special instruction.

DosqAliyev told Interfax that the Kazakh government is spending $1.3 million to purchase medicine and monitor checkpoints, among other measures.

Nadezhda Ott is the chief of the Eastern Kazakhstan Regional Sanitary Control Agency. She told RFE/RL: "The situation here is normal. There are no cases either in the country or in the region. We are implementing special measures on preventing the importation of the disease through quarantine and sanitary services in the airport and at special control checkpoints along the border with China. The Chinese border is temporarily closed for 20 days and all those returning from China are under strict control."

She said that in accordance with an order from the chairman of the State Security Council, all Kazakh citizens who have been in China studying or working in Kazakh embassies are now returning. "We used to have about 100 persons arriving in Kazakhstan from China before," Ott said. But currently, the border is only open for returns. "We are letting all Chinese citizens leave Kazakh territory for China, but only Kazakh citizens are allowed to enter Kazakhstan from China now. As for the others, we do not let them in. The border is sealed."

Kyrgyzstan is also considering closing its border with China. Nurbolot Usenbaev, deputy head of the sanitation control department at the Kyrgyz Health Ministry, told RFE/RL, "These days, we are forced to appeal to the Kyrgyz government, asking [it] to consider a motion on temporary closure, in some degree, of the border [with China]." The Kyrgyz Health Ministry, Usenbaev added, has already prepared hospitals for the urgent care of possible SARS patients.

Late last month, the Kyrgyz government warned citizens against traveling to China and Southeast Asia. It has set up medical-inspection posts at all of the country's international airports, bus and railway stations, and highway border crossings with China.

Iain Simpson is a communications officer at the UN's World Health Organization (WHO). He welcomes the Central Asian governments' concerns about the SARS virus. He stresses that the key conditions for controlling and containing SARS are the quick identification of infected people, strict isolation, and appropriate treatment.

However, a Kyrgyz student who recently returned from Beijing questioned the efficiency of measures being taken by her country in an interview with RFE/RL. She complained that passengers coming from Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, were not checked after they arrived at Bishkek airport.

"It was very strange that some Chinese citizens who flew from the Chinese city of Urumqi to Kyrgyzstan were not checked at all. I think that if they were infected, then they would simply have brought the illness through the border. So they should also check these [people]. Or maybe it is worth temporarily closing the border [with China]."

The WHO says it does not recommend border closings. Rather, Simpson said, the WHO urges that people should simply avoid traveling to affected areas. "At the moment, our recommendation is that borders should remain open and that there should be no total restriction on travel and trade, but that people who can avoid nonessential travel to these affected areas should avoid making those trips," he said.

These areas include Hong Kong, Beijing, and the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi. The Xinjiang region, which borders Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, is not included in the warnings.

(RFE/RL's Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh services contributed to this report.)