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SARS declared ‘over its peak’

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BEIJING — The World Health Organization declared Thursday that the SARS epidemic was "over its peak" around the globe, including in worst-hit China, which reported no new infections on its mainland for the second day in a row.

"It's fair to say that the SARS epidemic is over its peak. We can see it globally and we can also see it in China," said Dr. Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China. "I think that's very good news."

His comments reinforced hopes that a turning point in the disease's path of transmission may soon be reached as three of the world's most severely hit areas appeared to be rallying.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted a travel advisory for Hong Kong on Thursday, while Taiwan reported just one new case and entered its eighth day without a death from severe acute respiratory syndrome.

On the mainland, the Health Ministry reported no SARS cases for the second consecutive day. Two new fatalities were reported in the northern province of Shanxi, edging the death toll up to 336. More than 5,000 people have been infected on the mainland.

Dr. David Heymann, the WHO's communicable diseases chief, cautioned the world must remain vigilant against the flu-like disease, which first appeared in the southern province of Guangdong in November and sparked worldwide panic with its rapid and seemingly random spread.

"We're on a downward slope, but that downward slope could spike up any time, just as it did in Canada," Heymann said.

Toronto, site of the only major outbreak outside Asia, thought it had the illness under control after an initial cluster appeared in March and April. But an undiagnosed case at North York General Hospital led to a further spread among patients, relatives and health care workers.

Heymann stressed it was important to understand how China managed its sharp decrease in SARS figures. Daily reports of new cases in Beijing, the Chinese capital, fell from about 100 at the beginning of May to about 50 mid-month to single-digits in recent days.

On Wednesday, the Chinese mainland reported no new cases and no new deaths for the first time since April.

"This might be that it's seasonal and that it's disappearing. It might be lots of different factors," Heymann said.

China was widely criticized for its slow, ineffective response to the outbreak and its early reluctance to respond to foreign pleas for information and cooperation.

It made a dramatic turnaround in April, with the country's top officials vowing to be open and aggressive in fighting SARS.

Sweeping — and often draconian — measures were put in place. In Beijing, the hardest-hit city in the world, tens of thousands of people were quarantined and hospitals, schools and other public venues were ordered closed.

In recent weeks, the city has slowly come back to life. According to the Beijing Morning Post and other newspapers, Beijing will reopen the national library on Monday and cinemas on Tuesday.

Movie theaters must install devices at their doors to check customers for fevers, and daily showings and ticket sales will be reduced to avoid crowding, the newspapers said.

The reopening of cinemas follows the gradual return of students to classes. Discos, health clubs and karaoke parlors remain closed, and there has been no word on when they might reopen. Officials say they will keep many prevention measures in place to avoid the possibility of a new wave of infections.

WHO travel warnings also remain in place for Beijing, the northern regions of Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and the eastern port city of Tianjin, as well as Taiwan.