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WHO urged to ease up travel alerts

A WHO team investigates the latest cases of SARS in southern China.
A WHO team investigates the latest cases of SARS in southern China.

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GENEVA, Switzerland (Reuters) -- The United States and other countries urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to consider a more cautious approach to issuing travel warnings for global diseases, saying these take a heavy economic toll.

The United Nations agency issued its first such travel alert last year over the SARS outbreak, advising at one time against trips to places such as Toronto, in Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan and parts of mainland China.

The WHO says the warnings, the last of three escalating levels of readiness, were justified and helped halt the spread of the previously unknown respiratory illness that killed nearly 800 people around the world.

The initial steps were a global warning of the existence of the infectious disease and the calling on governments involved to take extra precautions, such as screening travellers.

But the travel warnings hit economies hard, particularly airlines, hotels and restaurants, which lost millions of dollars as tourists and businessmen cancelled trips.

U.S. delegate William Steiger told the WHO's 32-member board a more gradual approach was needed.

"We need a series of scaleable alert and advisory measures, not an on/off switch as the WHO has used in the past ... We also need a better protocol for the removal of alerts at the end an outbreak," he said.

Steiger's appeal was backed by Britain and Canada.

"We agree with the United States that some sort of staged-process or gradation would be particularly practical," said Liam Donaldson, Britain's chief medical officer.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the first major infectious disease to emerge in the 21st century, was first identified in China in late 2002. The virus spread to more than 30 countries, infecting about 8,000 people.

WHO's advisories on SARS had been "justified and based on solid criteria," WHO spokeswoman Christine McNab said, adding that health officials were due to discuss travel advisories at a revision of international health regulations starting in March.

Canada reacted angrily last year when Toronto, the only place outside Southeast Asia where people died of SARS, was put on the WHO travel alert list. It was removed after a week.

Steiger noted that for Toronto, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC), one of the world's top authorities on infectious disease, stopped short of issuing a full travel warning.

"We saw with the example of Toronto that we came to different conclusions, which caused some confusion," he said.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the WHO and the CDC needed to harmonise their warnings.

"We think it would be much better, instead of the United States having a travel advisory and the WHO having a travel advisory -- people wouldn't know which one to follow."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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