2 On 12 March 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted the world to cases of atypical pneumonia, now known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Since then, the WHO has created a virtual research centre, and established a global network, by which treating physicians can share clinical data on treatments and outcomes.
3 As at 14 April 2003, the WHO reported that a total of 3,619 cases of SARS had been diagnosed, with 144 deaths in 21 countries. These shocking figures have since increased, aggravating the plight of economies and public health. To date, there is no treatment for the disease, only preventive measures that could help stem the spread of SARS.
4 The rapid spread of SARS to several countries is primarily due to the ease of air travel. Countries are now beginning to count the cost of the infection. Health care systems have come under severe strains to cope with reported cases and to prevent the spread of SARS to more people. Business and leisure travel by air has drastically reduced. The economic cost to the travel and leisure industries, and to the economy as a whole is mounting. If the spread of SARS is not controlled, it would have a disastrous effect on the world economy.
5 The spread of SARS is however not limited to air travel. Thousands of ships ply every day between ports, carrying with them seafarers from all nations. Cruise ships, ferries and passenger liners in particular carry large number of passengers and crew on each ship. Should any crew or passenger on board be infected with SARS, the disease could spread quickly on the ship to many persons. This is especially so on a passenger ship. With large number of persons on board, it is also extremely difficult to trace those who have come into contact with the person affected by SARS to control the spread of infection.
6 There is therefore an urgent need for the international shipping community to appreciate the potential danger of the spread of SARS through sea travel and to take the necessary steps to prevent any spread. Countries should be ready to handle incidents of SARS on ships in their ports or arriving in their ports. The bulk of the world seaborne trade is carried by ships and all countries should do what they could to ensure that this is not disrupted because of SARS. As the United Nations specialized agency responsible for maritime affairs, the Organization is determined to play its role in helping its Member States to fight against the spread of SARS through shipping.