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Tuesday March 25, 10:24 PM

WHO mulls global travel restrictions as SARS cases rise

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The World Health Organisation mulled global travel restrictions as the incidence of a deadly respiratory disease escalated in Hong Kong and Singapore quarantined more than 700 people to contain its spread.

Scientists in 11 laboratories worldwide meanwhile continued to toil feverishly to discover a cure for the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), as several SARS patients were discharged from hospitals in Hanoi, Singapore and Taiwan after recovering.

As 25 more new SARS cases were reported in Hong Kong, the WHO head office in Geneva said a meeting planned on Tuesday will determine if there is need to impose travel restrictions to stem the spread of SARS, which manifests itself as a form of pneumonia.

The mystery virus, spread through direct close contact with an infected person, has caused at least 17 deaths and 456 "suspected or probable" cases around the world, WHO officials said.

David Heymann, the executive director of the WHO's communicable diseases section, indicated that some countries had fears notably about the situation in Hong Kong, where the number of cases rose to 286 Tuesday.

However, he maintained that WHO felt there was no evidence to warrant global travel restrictions, and that containment measures taken around the world were working, although individual nations may decide on travel advisories.

In an unprecedented move, Singapore invoked the Infectious Diseases Act to keep 740 people, including school children, under home quarantine for 10 days.

Singapore's move underlined tough actions taken by governments to break the chain of transmission of the disease, which has killed 10 people in Kong Kong, four in Vietnam and three in Canada in the past two weeks.

Those who break the quarantine will be fined 5,000 Singapore dollars (2,840 US) for the first time and 10,000 dollars for the second offence.

"The ministry would like to remind all persons served the quarantine order to stay at home for the period indicated in the letter to them. They should minimise contacts... and to check their temperature everyday," the health ministry said.

But while the ministry said in its latest bulletin that the number of cases in the city-state rose to 69 from 65, it also reported that 13 SARS patients have been discharged from hospital, indicating that SARS is not universally fatal.

Eleven 11 victims were in serious condition in Singapore.

A French embassy official in Hanoi also said 11 people in Vietnam infected with SARS have been discharged from hospitals after recovery.

Five more people being treated at Hanoi's French Hospital had been released after showing no symptoms of the disease for 12 consecutive days.

Other patients were on the mend and many more were expected to be discharged, the official said.

A Taiwanese woman listed as one of the six "probable" SARS cases in Taipei was discharged from a hospital Tuesday after doctors announced she has completely recovered.

The disease however is sowing a climate of fear in Hong Kong which is driving away tourists, emptying restaurants and prompting many people to wear protective masks.

But Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation (WHO) Western Pacific office in Manila, welcomed a report by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which said it they had detected a virus from the coronavirus group as a possible cause of SARS.

"This is the latest one, but these are still early days. We have to wait for a lot more evidence to be sure that this is what we've been looking for," he told AFP by telephone.

"As for how long a cure can be found, we don't know."

Cordingley said 11 laboratories in nine countries are working together to find a cure, but there has yet to be any consistency in their findings.

Earlier findings by scientists in Germany and Hong Kong pointed to a virus belonging to the paramyxoviridae family as the probable cause for SARS.

"If the laboratories produce results that are consistent, it's only then that we have to start working towards a vaccine and a cure," Cordingley said.

France reported its first SARS case in a man who arrived on Sunday from Vietnam where he is a medical worker at a French hospital in Hanoi.

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