Japan breathed a sigh of relief yesterday after the government declared the country apparently free of SARS following a scare over a visiting Taiwanese doctor who developed the deadly flu-like illness after returning home.
But doctors warned that the disease could still strike and officials urged those overseas who had been in contact with SARS victims to refrain from visiting Japan.
"I believe there is still a chance SARS could appear in Japan," said Hiroko Sagara, a doctor who heads the Infectious Disease Department at the Yokohama Municipal Citizen's Hospital near Tokyo. "Considering how much contact Japan has with the area and cases like this, when people who have it come here."
Japan, which has yet to see a domestic case, was thrown into a tizzy by news of the Taiwanese doctor's visit.
Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi said it appeared safe to declare that there have been no secondary infections from the doctor, who had treated SARS patients before coming to Japan on a package tour. The doctor left Japan 10 days ago and the incubation period is 10 days.
But Sakaguchi cautioned against complacency.
"This issue is settled," he told a news conference. "But, as the disease is still raging, we have no idea what could happen in the future. We must consider things very prudently."
Sakaguchi added that Japan had used diplomatic routes to urge that people from infected areas who might have come in contact with SARS patients, especially medical workers, put off visiting Japan until it was certain they did not have the disease.
Japan currently has three suspected cases of SARS, but a Health Ministry official said he expected they would be ruled out when a special government committee meets next week.
The incident also sparked charges of official ineptitude after a quarantine office delayed passing on a tip about the doctor for hours and local officials waited for directions from Tokyo before starting to track down where the doctor had been.
"We regret to say ... that both the central and local governments are far from being prepared to cope with an epidemic," said an editorial in the Japan Times newspaper.
As a result, Japan will tighten its infectious disease policy, increasing staff at quarantine offices. It is also considering amending its infectious disease law to make it easier for the central government to take charge of disease control.
Despite government advice to stay home for 10 days after returning from a SARS-infected country, three ruling party heavyweights went back to work only three days after returning from China.
Although the three said they were fine and sported large white masks as they mingled in the parliament chamber and, later, at a political reception, fellow lawmakers slammed their actions.
"If they should spread the disease throughout parliament, it would be unforgivable," one opposition lawmaker said.