Sun, Apr 06, 2003 - Page 1 News List

China says sorry for SARS response

UNUSUAL REMORSE In an extraordinary apology, the head of China's Center for Disease Control said his agency had not done enough to keep the public informed

REUTERS , BEIJING AND HONG KONG

Fashionable masks are becoming popular in Hong Kong as people try to protect themselves against SARS and look good at the same time.

PHOTO: REUTERS

China, stung by criticism of its slow response to a deadly atypical pneumonia outbreak, apologized as newspapers in virus-hit Hong Kong warned yesterday of a health-care system in crisis.

Malaysia reported its first likely death from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has killed more than 80 people and infected around 2,400 worldwide. Singapore said it would keep its schools closed for several more days to allay public fears.

Beijing began sending its first daily reports on new infections and deaths from the disease to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly five months after the first victim came down with the virus in Guangdong Province.

China, which has already seen 136,000 foreign tourists cancel visits and fears further economic damage, apologized for its slow response to the outbreak and vowed to set up early warning mechanisms to cope with future health crises.

Vice Premier Wu Yi (吳儀) called for "the immediate establishment of a national medical emergency mechanism, with emphasis placed on a public health information and an early warning reporting mechanism," the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper said yesterday.

China has come under fire for failing to report early and openly on the disease that emerged in Guangdong in November, infected hundreds in the province and went on to spread to Hong Kong and around the world in March.

China struggled to address this criticism on Friday, when Li Liming (李立明), director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, apologized over its handling of the crisis.

"Today we apologize here to all of you that our health departments did not have enough close cooperation with the media," Li told a news conference in Beijing for domestic media.

"We did not make good use of our health team to help conduct mass science publicity which would have helped people grasp an understanding of the disease, enhance their ability to prevent the disease and be better aware of their own health," he said.

But it was unclear at whom Li's apology was directed -- foreign media were not invited to the news conference -- and his apology went unreported in the Chinese state media yesterday.

In the Guangdong capital Guangzhou, a team of WHO experts on a hunt for clues on the disease met provincial health officials and recovered victims of SARS, and traveled to Foshan, where the first case emerged in November.

Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang (張文康) has stressed that the outbreak is under "effective control," and Guangzhou still plans to host its flagship trade fair. But analysts say that global high-tech supply routes are threatened by SARS-related manufacturing disruptions and travel bans.

Millions of Chinese are expected to travel over the week-long May 1 Labor Day holidays. China, which counts on three "Golden Week" holidays a year to help fuel consumer spending, appeared eager to keep public concern at a minimum.

"All of China's tourist attractions are guaranteed to be safe and healthy," said a headline in the People's Daily.

Hard-hit Hong Kong has seen its health-care system thrown into crisis, as doctors and health-care workers succumbing to infection can no longer cope with treating other life-threatening illnesses at some hospitals, newspapers reported yesterday.

A top doctor at United Christian Hospital, where at least a dozen medical staff have been infected with SARS in the past few days, said the Hospital Authority overseeing the former British territory's health-care system was unable to handle the outbreak.

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