WHO says SARS can be eliminated; China says Beijing situation grave

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 6, 2003

BEIJING (AP) - SARS can still be contained and eliminated, the head of the World Health Organization predicted Tuesday after China's premier described Beijing's crisis as grave and warned officials to work hard to fight the disease or be punished.

Strict measures have put more than 25,000 people in quarantine across China where news slowly emerged of more protests by those fearful that SARS patients at local hospitals will infect their communities.

New deaths in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan pushed the worldwide death toll from severe acute respiratory syndrome to at least 479 people. More than 6,600 have been infected.

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In Brussels, European health ministers met in an emergency session to standardize anti-SARS measures across the continent, which has reported 33 probable cases, but no deaths.

''We have a window of opportunity. We still can contain the first new disease of this century and make it go away,'' Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO director-general, said at the meeting.

Officials in Taiwan extended mandatory home quarantines for suspected SARS patients in Taipei from 10 to 14 days. Mayor Ma Ying-jeou said a SARS taskforce would detain those who broke the rule.

Doctors in Hong Kong say they have helped some SARS patients survive by administering a serum that contains antibodies to the virus obtained from patients who have recovered.

''This treatment has only been applied to those critically ill patients when everything else fails,'' said Janet Chow of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

China remains worst-hit by the respiratory illness, reporting 138 more cases and eight new fatalities Tuesday, raising its death toll to 214.

The U.S. electronics maker, Motorola Inc., said it closed its China headquarters in Beijing after an employee contracted SARS and more than 1,000 employees have been working from home.

Hong Kong said it had six more dead - pushing its tally to 193. However, only nine new cases of infection were reported in the former British colony, adding to hopes that the worst might be over there. One new death was reported in Taiwan.

The Philippines said it had seven SARS cases, raising to 10 its infection total.

In the United States, the University of California at Berkeley said it will turn away new students from SARS-hit China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in coming months. In what is believed to be the first such move by a major U.S. educational institution, about 500 would-be students will get their fees refunded.

Media reports in Beijing quoted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as saying that while progress against SARS had been made, the outbreak in the Chinese capital ''still remains grave.''

Wen ordered officials at all levels to work hard against the illness or face harsh punishment, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

''It is very important to do the job well in Beijing, which is the capital and the political and cultural center of the country,'' Wen was quoted as saying.

Beijing has about 2,000 cases of infection - nearly half the county's total - and 107 deaths.

To stop the spread of SARS, Beijing has closed schools, built a new 1,000-bed hospital on its outskirts and ordered travel restrictions.

In central China, protesters in Hujiayao village in Henan province ransacked a hospital on April 28 and 29 that had been designated as a SARS treatment center, destroying walls and fencing, said a local official.

''People were worried about being infected, because the hospital was close to the village,'' said the official, who would only give her surname, Li.

In the nearby city of Linzhou, a mob attacked a hospital and a disease-prevention office April 28 after hearing the two sites were to receive SARS patients, officials said.

The officials gave conflicting accounts of whether there were any suspected SARS cases in Hujiayao at the time of the protest.

Henan was at least the third place in China where violent protests are known to have taken place in recent days. In China the media is state-controlled and information about such incidents often gets out long after the fact.

In Malaysia, more than 750 medical workers and patients completed a 10-day quarantine and were declared SARS-free. Authorities closed off the Sentosa Psychiatric Hospital in Kuching on Borneo island on April 27 after two patients died. Test later showed SARS was not involved.

In Geneva, a global air industry group said new airport screening methods have kept SARS-infected passengers from boarding airplanes and reduced the risk of disease transmission to other passengers.

''Travel by air is safe, even in this situation,'' said Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association. Airlines, particularly those flying in Asian skies, have reported a dramatic drop in business.