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LEAD: H.K. off WHO list of SARS-affected areas.

HONG KONG, June 23 Kyodo


Hong Kong was cleared Monday from the World Health Organization's list of SARS-affected areas after more than three months of battle against the highly contagious disease that has infected 1,755 people and killed 296 deaths in Hong Kong.

''The WHO has removed Hong Kong from its list of areas with recent local transmission of SARS,'' the U.N. health agency said in a statement.

''This is a very significant achievement,'' David Heymann, executive director of communicable diseases at the WHO, said in the statement.

''Hong Kong, with its dense population and fluid border with China, had one of the hardest outbreaks to control. This success means that the whole world can now feel safer from the SARS threat,'' Heymann said.

The territory reported no new infections of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) over the weekend, some 20 days after the last confirmed case was isolated June 2.

Only Beijing, Taiwan and Toronto remain on the WHO list.

The disease has killed 804 people worldwide and infected at least 8,461.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa welcomed the WHO's action, but urged continued vigilance against future outbreaks of SARS.

''Our name's been removed from the list. But from experiences everywhere else, we have to remind ourselves that this could come again and we really have to be on high alert and we have to be on guard all the time,'' Tung told reporters.

Tung made the remarks while visiting Amoy Gardens, a private housing estate where more than 320 residents came down with the disease.

The Hong Kong leader mourned all those who died in the health crisis and expressed his condolences to their families.

He also praised the Hong Kong community, especially front-line health-care workers, for their concerted efforts in fighting the disease.

While stressing the importance of better preparing the territory for any future outbreaks, Tung said the government will focus on rebuilding the economy, which has been hit adversely in the wake of the spread of SARS.

Businesses in air traffic, tourism, retail and other consumption sectors has slumped over the past three months.

The economy is likely to fall into recession in the April-June second quarter of this year following a contraction in the first quarter from the previous three-month period.

The unemployment rate surged to a record high of 8.3% in the March-May period, and the underemployment rate also jumped to a new high of 3.8%. Hong Kong considers a person underemployed if he or she works less than 35 hours a week.

Financial Secretary Antony Leung will soon announce a series of measures to attract more overseas tourists and business officials to the territory, Tung said.

Earlier, the government announced spending to create some 700,000 jobs or training places to help relieve the jobless situation.

By the end of this month, Hong Kong will sign a free-trade pact with mainland China in a bid to spur the sagging economy.

Meanwhile, school children took off their surgical masks together at ceremonies organized by their schools to mark the removal of Hong Kong's name from the WHO list.

Local education authorities have told schools that students will no longer be forced to put on masks at classes once the WHO's decision is made.

Some shopping malls, meanwhile, organized their own activities Monday to celebrate Hong Kong's SARS-free status.
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Publication:Asian Economic News
Geographic Code:9HONG
Date:Jun 24, 2003
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