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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bangkok conference as deadly SARS virus spooks ASEAN

Bangkok conference as deadly SARS virus spooks ASEAN

Prime Minister Hun Sen will head to Bangkok on April 28 to lead a regional summit

on the deadly SARS virus. Minister of Health, Hong Sun Huot, will also attend the

summit, which has been called by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The conference is scheduled for April 29 and will focus on screening procedures,

prevention measures and rehabilitation of patients.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, has regional governments extremely

worried.

ASEAN health ministers met in Malaysia on April 24 and 25 to agree on immigration

procedures at international checkpoints and discuss public health issues. Cambodia

has held its own internal meetings on SARS, bringing together officials from health,

law enforcement and foreign affairs.

And after expressing the hope that the disease was in retreat, public health officials

are now warning the epidemic is far from contained. The World Health Organisation

(WHO) reported that the death rate from SARS is now at 5.6 percent and has risen

as the infections spread.

WHO officials in Cambodia said three people had been quarantined with respiratory

infections within the past fortnight, but said none had the disease. However health

professionals are continuing to increase their preparedness as the rest of Asia braces

for more infections.

"We do not know if it will happen to Cambodia, but we are anticipating any surprises,"

said Dr Michel Jancloes, WHO's country representative. "We have dedicated personnel

[and] we are mobilizing equipment for observation and diagnosing cases."

Jancloes said Phnom Penh's Calmette Hospital and the Siem Reap Referral Hospital

were now prepared to handle an outbreak. That became essential after medical evacuation

of SARS patients was banned.

"The program is very good," said Jancloes. However he warned that despite

the improvements, the country still lacked the best available medical care: "If

you are infected, and among 10 percent of the complicated cases, then we can't say

we have better treatment than, say, Singapore."

Jancloes said screening procedures were "improving each day" and diagnostic

kits for SARS would arrive at Phnom Penh's Pasteur Institute by the end of April.

Despite the preparations, the economic pain has become apparent. Restaurants in Siem

Reap have cut back on staff and working hours as tourist arrivals plummet. Airlines

have reduced the number of flights landing here.

Preliminary statistics from the Ministry of Tourism indicate arrivals were down more

than 20 percent in March compared to the same time last year. Hotel occupancies in

Phnom Penh fell to 30 percent, about half their normal rate. Figures for April were

not available.

As of April 24, WHO reported that 4,288 people were infected with SARS, causing 251

deaths, and affecting 25 countries. More than 2,000 people infected with the virus

have so far recovered.

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