WHO lifts Hong Kong, Guangdong warnings

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NEW YORK -- One step forward, and a half a step back.

The World Health Organization lifted its recommendation today against all but essential travel to Hong Kong and Guangdong province, China, because the situation with SARS had "improved significantly."

On the same day, May 23, however, the Centers for Disease Control reinstated a SARS travel alert -- which is less severe than an advisory -- for Toronto because of a cluster of five possible cases.

In welcoming the WHO development, however, Hong Kong Tourism Board chairman Selina Chow said the board "has already drawn up its comeback plans in consultation with its trade partners, and we are now finalizing details with the government."

"We've been waiting for this day for a long time," a board spokeswoman said. "We are very relieved that we can move on with our plans. We have a very aggressive plan in place, but it was not appropriate to go forward with it until the warning was lifted. We will come back with PR and advertising, and we are working with our partners, wholesalers and retail travel agents on special deals, initiatives and events to make sure the message is conveyed to the public."

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director-general of the WHO, said, "I am pleased to note that due to the efforts of the local and national health authorities, with support from WHO and partners, the outbreaks in Guangdong and in Hong Kong are being contained."

WHO reported that the three-day average of new cases in Hong Kong was below five for the previous six days and the outbreak declined since the number of new cases hit its peak in late March.

In Hong Kong, the number of people who are infectious is below 60, though there are still other patients convalescing, WHO said.

All new cases in the previous 20 days had occurred in people who are already under quarantine because they were identified as contacts of an infected person, the organization said.

No recent cases of the virus being exported from Hong Kong have been reported, the WHO said.

In Guangdong province, the three-day average of new cases was below five for the past 11 days, the WHO said.

Local transmission is reportedly at "low levels" and no cases have been exported "in recent weeks." WHO said.

The WHO's travel advisories remain in place for Beijing, four Chinese provinces and Taiwan.

In Atlanta, meanwhile, the CDC had dropped an alert -- which "does not advise against travel to a particular area, but informs travelers of a health concern and provides advice about precautions..." for Toronto on SARS several days ago, on May 20.

The CDC's SARS advisory against travel to Toronto had been eliminated April 29.

The reinstated Toronto alert means the CDC "is again recommending that U.S. travelers to Toronto take precautions to safeguard their health. These include avoiding settings where there has been evidence of transmissions of SARS, such as healthcare settings."

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