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Swiss to tighten defences against Sars

The continuing spread of the Sars virus is causing concern at the Federal Health Office

(Keystone Archive)

The director of the Federal Health Office, Thomas Zeltner, is set to propose tough new measures to prevent the spread of Sars in Switzerland.

As the global death toll from the pneumonia virus rises, he warned Sars could cripple the Swiss economy if allowed to enter the country.

In an interview with the German-language newspaper "SonntagsZeitung", Zeltner said he would present his proposals this week to the Interior Minister, Pascal Couchepin.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome broke out in China last November, but has since spread to more than 20 countries. To date, the virus has killed 318 people and affected more than 4,800.

On Monday, World Health Organization (WHO) said Vietnam was now free of the virus and could be removed from its list of infected countries, which still includes China, Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong.

The agency added that the disease had peaked in all Sars infected countries except for China.

However, David Heymann, the WHO's chief of communicable diseases, warned that it was too early to say whether the disease was being brought under control.

"China is the key and it's the unknown question in the whole formula, because if China cannot contain it then it can't be removed," he said.

Suspected cases

On Friday, Switzerland registered its tenth suspected case of Sars. All ten cases are being analysed in laboratories, but there have been no confirmations of the virus so far.

The health office has ten people working full time on researching the virus and has set aside SFr150,000 ($110,000) per month to fund the work.

Although there have been no confirmed Sars cases in Switzerland, Zeltner believes the illness should be treated in the same way as BSE or mad cow disease.

He also warned that the virus could last for months, if not years. No treatment or vaccine for Sars has yet been found.

Some areas of the Swiss economy, notably the national airline Swiss, have already suffered from the Sars crisis.

In mid-April, Swiss announced it would cancel a large chunk of its short and long haul flights, following a slump in ticket sales in the wake of the Sars virus and the war in Iraq.

Airport security

Asian ministers agreed at a meeting on Saturday on the effectiveness of screening passengers flying out of areas affected by Sars, in line with recommendations by the World Health Organization last week.

However, it is not clear whether Zeltner will recommend the introduction of security measures at Switzerland's airports.

On March 16, Zurich and Geneva airports introduced increased security measures for travellers arriving from Sars-affected countries.

But Marc Niquille, the doctor in charge at Geneva airport, said there were no plans to take further precautions.

"It's clear that if the alert level rises or if the epidemic nature of the virus changes, we will adopt a more restrictive attitude," Niquille told swissinfo.

"But to do that we would need the go-ahead from the health office."

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Sars broke out in China last November, but has since spread to more than 20 countries.
To date, the virus has killed 318 people and sickened more than 4,800.
Switzerland has registered ten suspected cases of Sars, none of which have been confirmed.
The Federal Health office has a team of ten full-time staff researching Sars, and has dedicated SFr150,000 ($110,000) per month to fund the work.

end of infobox


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