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Central Asia: Anti-SARS Measures Softened As China Outbreaks Come Under Control

  • Antoine Blua

It has been a week since the World Health Organization lifted its travel ban on Beijing, the capital of the nation where the deadly SARS outbreak began. The neighboring Central Asian republics have begun scaling back the preventive measures they had taken against the spread of the disease, reopening borders and resuming air transit.

Prague, 1 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has killed more than 800 people and infected close to 8,500 worldwide. Most of the cases have been in China, where the disease first appeared late last year.

In early May, China's Central Asian neighbors took measures to prevent SARS from spreading to the region. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- all three of which share borders with China -- temporarily suspended regular air, railway, and road traffic with China. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan's national airlines also suspended flights to the country.

The measures appear to have been successful. No cases of SARS have been officially reported in Central Asia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on 24 June lifted its travel ban on the Chinese capital, Beijing. Dick Thompson, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, said: "We believe that in China, the outbreak is essentially contained. Most importantly, local transmission is coming to an end, which means that there are no cases being acquired in the community any longer. What's happening if there are cases being acquired, they're usually in a hospital setting. Even so, those numbers are way down and we believe that this outbreak is coming under control."

Since then, the Central Asian states have begun lifting their anti-SARS measures. Tajikistan has yet to resume full road service, but on 29 June it restored regular air flights to China. Nuriddin Amirkulov, deputy chairman of Tajikistan's Border Committee, said: "Air communications [between China and Tajikistan] were reopened last Sunday [29 July]. As soon as the Chinese government announced the [SARS threat] had been eliminated, [air transit] was reopened."

In Kyrgyzstan, Deputy Health Minister Guljigit Aliyev said road and air transit to China is due to resume soon -- although certain sanitary controls will remain in place at the border for some time. "In accordance with suggestions from the Foreign Ministry and other ministries, [the Health Ministry] is holding consultations with members of the Kyrgyz government on opening the [Kyrgyz-Chinese] border. We gave the proposal to the government and we are dealing with the issue," Aliyev said.

According to a statement issued last week by the office of Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov, Kazakhstan was due to fully resume air, railway, and highway traffic today.

But so far only the roads appear to have been reopened. Qanat Esenberliev is a Kazakh officer at the Horgoss customs point at the Chinese border. "[The border] is open!" he said. "Buses are all crossing the border easily. Only private cars are being controlled and need special papers."

A duty officer of Kazakhstan's national Air Astana airlines, meanwhile, said air traffic to China will resume only next week (8 July). And railway service likewise has yet to reopen. A railway spokesman explained: "We are still waiting for the order. We are waiting for a telegram. When we get it, we will tell you when [rail traffic with China will resume]."

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan's national airlines are still suspending flights to China.

Thompson of the WHO insists that it is "appropriate" for travel to fully resume all over China. "We don't believe that there's a SARS problem in those regions, no. It's safe for travelers to move around according to the evidence that we have," he said. Thompson recommended, however, that travelers to China follow basic rules of hygiene, such as regular and careful hand washing.

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