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World: Eastern Europe, Central Asia Unscathed By SARS -- So Far

Since it first emerged last year, more than 300 people worldwide have died of SARS, the pneumonia-like virus, and more than 4,500 have been infected. Most of the cases have been in Asia, but the virus has spread to other continents, too. One region that's been relatively unscathed is Eastern Europe, with only one case confirmed by the World Health Organization so far.

Prague, 28 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In Beijing and Hong Kong, everyone is wearing respiratory masks -- from students and city professionals to little girls in ballet class.

They're trying to protect themselves against SARS, the deadly pneumonia-like virus that first emerged in China last year and has since spread around the globe. SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, has killed more than 300 people and infected more than 4,500 others, mostly in Asia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the outbreak has now peaked in some affected areas, like Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. But it's still on the rise in China, and neighboring countries are taking no chances.

Southeast Asian heads of state are meeting tomorrow in Bangkok to discuss how to cooperate in the fight against the virus. Taiwan yesterday banned visits from other countries hit by SARS.

And South Korea, though it has no confirmed cases, today announced it's tightening protective measures as public concern about the disease is growing. Prime Minister Goh Kun made the announcement in a televised broadcast to the nation. "We will allow the same level of quarantine procedures for SARS as for pest or cholera and set up rules to isolate SARS patients until the person is completely cured or for a minimum of 10 days," he said.

One region that has barely featured at all on the list of SARS cases is Eastern Europe. The WHO says there has been only one confirmed case in the region so far, in Romania -- but Romanian authorities say that patient actually turned out to have the flu.

In the last few days, Bulgaria and Lithuania have reported one suspected SARS case each, but neither has been confirmed. Russia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan have all ruled out SARS in their handful of suspected cases.

Maria Cheng is a spokeswoman for the WHO in Geneva. She said luck has played a large part in protecting Eastern Europe and Central Asia from the virus. "SARS originated in Guangdong in southern China and from there it was taken to Hong Kong. There, unfortunately, an infected doctor stayed in a hotel where there were also people from Singapore, Canada, and Vietnam, so they took it back to their countries. If there had been somebody from Romania or the Czech Republic, it might have gone back there. Largely [the worldwide spread] is due to that event in Hong Kong. The woman who took it back to Canada, she happened to be from Canada, so it could have easily been someone from Australia, Spain, or Italy or anywhere," Cheng said.

At that point, the disease was able to spread relatively quickly because few were aware of the virus, let alone how to prevent its spread. But then the WHO issued its global alert on SARS in mid-March. Cheng said awareness shot up -- and that helped stem the spread.

Several countries in the region took protective measures. Kyrgyzstan, which borders China, said earlier this month it was introducing medical controls at border checkpoints and at Bishkek International Airport. Tajikistan, another of China's neighbors, recommended against travel to Southeast Asia and said it would screen passengers at airports.

Several regions in eastern Russia have either banned travel to China and Hong Kong outright or prohibited tour and business travel to Southeast Asian countries hit by the disease.

Russia's epidemics service warned against any unnecessary travel to China or Southeast Asia and gave personal hygiene tips to avoid catching the disease -- washing your hands regularly is said to be the best way to avoid becoming infected.

Daily trips across the Russian-Chinese border are down by nearly half, and passenger numbers are down on the only flight now linking Vladivostok to the Chinese city of Harbin. These measures are hitting the region economically, but they may well be helping to keep the virus off Russian territory.

Still, Deputy Health Minister Gennadii Onishchenko said eastern regions can do more, particularly in trying to spot SARS among their Chinese migrant workers. He promised anonymity for any worker who comes forward with symptoms of the disease.

The WHO's Cheng told RFE/RL measures like these have helped. "Those were definitely the right measures to take in terms of monitoring people from affected areas to see if they might have symptoms and again warning perhaps against travel to some of those areas if it was nonessential," Cheng said. "The WHO has done the same thing with our travel advisories. We have them for Hong Kong, Guangdong, Beijing, Shanxi and Toronto. We're advising against travel there in order to stem the spread of the disease."

That's not to say there's any room for complacency. SARS is still on the increase in China.

David Heymann, the WHO's chief of communicable diseases, was asked today if he is confident the worldwide spread of SARS can be stopped. He said: "No, we are not. We are hoping."

Cheng gave a similar response when asked how worried the WHO is that SARS could spread across China's border into Russia and Central Asia. "We're hoping," she said, "that with proper exit-screening procedures, where people will be asked to monitor their health for any symptoms of SARS, that we'll be able to prevent it spreading."

(RFE/RL's Romanian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Slovak services contributed to this report.)