Europe's health ministers have backed away from plans for large-scale screening of passengers arriving from countries affected by severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
After a meeting yesterday with Gro Harlem Brundtland, the World Health Organisation's director general, EU ministers agreed that the situation in Europe was stable, with 33 probable cases of the disease recorded so far.
But the European commissioner for health, David Byrne, said the Sars epidemic was a "wake-up call" for Europe. He called for increased powers for the Commission to combat the spread of future epidemics, and suggested that, if necessary, he should be able to prevent people from travelling within the EU.
Mr Byrne said the European Commission already had the ability to prevent animals moving if they were hit by an epidemic. This was used when the UK was affected by foot-and-mouth disease. He said the EU needed some "similar kind of response" for human health.
Although that idea was not discussed yesterday, ministers urged Mr Byrne to press ahead with a plan for a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control with the job of co-ordination, surveillance and communication with the public.
Most of the work in preventing the spread of Sars has been concentrated on surveillance of passengers leaving the affected areas. Travellers are routinely asked whether they have been in contact with people who have been infected or have suffered a high temperature. Airlines have been informed about how to act if people appear to develop symptoms in transit. That approach was endorsed yesterday despite Italian pressure for greater monitoring of incoming passengers.
Entry screening was described as a "false security" by Klaus Theo Schroeder, Germany's junior health minister, and David Lammy, a British Health minister, called for the continuation of "our precautionary and proportionate response".
The global picture remains mixed. Dr Brundtland told a news conference that the epidemic had not yet peaked in China, although it has been contained in Canada and largely eliminated in Vietnam.
The Sars virus has so far killed 479 people and infected more than 7,000 worldwide.
Dr Brundtland said: "There may be two different strains or a modification, some may be tougher than others, but really now this is all speculation based on different research that has been made. We cannot sum up yet exactly where we are on that issue."
She argued that she "would be surprised if European Union countries are not well prepared for Sars".
¿ The death rate from Sars is more than twice the 5 per cent reported by the WHO in the early stages of the epidemic, according to the first major epidemiological study of the virus. Professor Roy Anderson and colleagues at Imperial College in London, who studied 1,425 cases of Sars in Hong Kong up to 28 April, report in The Lancet that the death rate among those admitted to hospital was 13.2 per cent in those under 60 and 43.3 per cent in those over 60.
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