China's last 12 SARS patients no longer have symptoms, health officials said yesterday, signalling the end to an outbreak that created panic, baffled medical professionals and left hundreds dead.
"The 12, who had been confirmed as having SARS, have no more symptoms and will not infect anyone in close contact with them," Beijing Municipal Bureau of Health deputy director Liang Wannian was quoted as saying by state media.
However, they remain in hospitals in Beijing "due to complications caused by SARS."
The World Health Organization (WHO) welcomed the development but warned the disease could easily resurface.
"We are obviously very pleased but I think the Chinese government, Beijing authorities and the WHO agree that we must maintain vigilance," Alan Schnur, head of WHO's communicable disease office in Beijing, said.
"This disease could easily come back again and it is essential that the infrastructure is in place if it does," Schnur said. "This has closed one chapter but it is not necessarily over yet."
At its peak, China was lumbered with six WHO travel advisories and Beijing resembled a ghost town with the population panic-buying essential goods and holing up at home.
It had a devastating effect on business, particularly tourism, with the fallout reflected in China's booming economic growth slowing to 6.7 percent in the second quarter of the year, from 9.9 percent in the first three months.
The announcement that the last patients were free from the bug coincided with President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) addressing a national conference on SARS prevention and control.
In his speech he attributed "the major victory" over the disease to "the staunch leadership" of the Communist Party which "further indicated the eminent superiority of socialism," the Xinhua news agency reported.
"At this moment, we want to extend our condolences to the martyrs who laid down their lives in this battle as well as those compatriots who have been deprived of their lives by SARS," Hu said.
He acknowledged that numerous problems had been exposed by the outbreak, such as "the backwardness of public health facilities and flaws in the public health system."
Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) told the meeting that over the next three years China would establish a disease control system and a mechanism to handle public emergencies.
China was officially declared SARS free by the WHO on June 24 and the global health body followed this up with an announcement earlier this month that the epidemic had been contained worldwide.
However, no cure has been found and medical experts are still struggling to find a suitable diagnostic test to detect the virus and identify it from other winter ailments like the common cold and flu which have some similar symptoms.
"We still have a way to go to have a fully adequate diagnostic test," Schnur said. "But I think the whole world has learnt from this outbreak. I think we'll be better prepared if SARS does come back."