BEIJING - Giving the clearest signal yet that the SARS epidemic is under control in the country where it began, the World Health Organization's executive director for communicable diseases said yesterday that WHO officials would consider lifting travel warnings for China.
Dr. David Heymann refused to speculate on when the warnings might be canceled, and said the decision would be made by the organization's director-general, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.
But Heymann cautioned that SARS remains mysterious and that China and other countries must guard against reinfection. The threat could be especially grave later in the year, he said, if SARS proves to be a seasonal virus that wanes in the summer only to roar back in the winter.
"Our hope is that this disease will not remain an endemic disease in China, like tuberculosis and malaria," he said.
WHO officials regard China as key to the global effort to contain and perhaps eradicate the new virus, a member of the coronavirus group that's believed to have jumped from animals to people. If it became a permanent presence among China's 1.3 billion people, they say, other countries could be reinfected.
Heymann, speaking at a news conference after reviewing data on China's SARS outbreak, praised the government's success in combating severe acute respiratory syndrome.
"We came to China to learn more about measures taken in China which have led to such a rapid decrease of SARS," he said. "What we found is a massive effort to mobilize the population both in urban and rural areas across the country."
Worldwide, the SARS virus has infected at least 8,435 people in 29 countries and caused 789 deaths. More than half the cases have been in China, where 343 deaths have been reported.
China-based WHO officials had complained that the Chinese government withheld crucial details about the nation's epidemic, including routes of transmission, but Heymann declared that problem resolved.
He described his two days of briefings by Chinese health officials as "complete" and said he was "impressed with the detail of the data shared on the SARS situation."
China's government initially tried to cover up the epidemic, which is believed to have started in November in Guangdong province. That drew global condemnation and left lingering suspicions about the accuracy of China's data, especially in recent weeks as the number of new cases reported fell sharply.
Gao Qiang, the executive vice minister of health, blamed China's earlier failure to provide more detailed information on a weak reporting system and a lack of coordination among various levels of government.
"In China, our health system was not very strong and our preparedness was not very high," Gao told the news conference.