Fri, May 02, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Beijing at standstill in grip of SARS

AFP , BEIJING

The crisis over severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) cast a pall yesterday over China's May Day celebrations, normally one of the biggest holidays of the year, as the global death toll rose with the announcement of more dead in China and Hong Kong.

At the same time, scientists met in Canada to discuss how to battle the disease that has now killed 393 worldwide and infected nearly 6,000.

With Beijing brought to a near-standstill by SARS and more than 11,000 residents in quarantine, shopping malls and tourist sites received just a trickle of visitors on yesterday's holiday, when socialist China traditionally honors its workers.

For those who did decide to go out, there was not much to do as indoor sports facilities -- from swimming pools to basketball courts -- were added to the list of already shut facilities such as cinemas, theatres and libraries.

The festivities were dampened further with the announcement of 11 more deaths in China and 187 more confirmed detections. The news was less grave from Hong Kong, where five people died after contracting SARS and 11 new cases were confirmed, suggesting that new infections were on the decline.

China now has reported 170 deaths from SARS and 3,460 cases, including 82 deaths and 1,553 cases in Beijing. Hong Kong has reported 162 deaths and 1,600 cases.

With the usual week-long holiday cancelled, China used the occasion to honor medical workers on the front lines of the battle against SARS.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said that hospitals in the Chinese capital are in need of more medical equipment.

"There is a need for more specialized equipment such as masks, gloves, ventilatory equipment, layer protective gear and ambulances to transport patients between hospitals," said WHO epidemiologist James Maguire after visiting a Beijing hospital treating SARS patients.

Health experts from Canada, the US and Hong Kong were to meet for a second day in the Canadian city of Toronto, meanwhile, to discuss efforts to combat the respiratory illness, which first appeared in China in November and has since spread around the world.

More than 100 scientists, epidemiologists and health officials are attending the two-day conference, which began Wednesday and is focused on SARS diagnosis, treatment and its epidemiological characteristics.

Also on the medical front, hospital authorities in Hong Kong were examining the cases of 12 SARS patients who recovered from the disease but then apparently suffered relapses, a potentially new and worrying development.

Six of the former SARS patients are back in hospital in stable condition, while the other six have been released again.

Fung Hung, chief executive of Hong Kong's Prince of Wales hospital, said it was too early to conclude the former SARS patients had suffered a relapse.

"We can't immediately conclude it is a relapse when a patient happens to suffer fever after recovering from SARS," he said. "We need experts to do clinical studies."

Authorities were forced on the defensive for releasing six of the relapse patients.

"We do not rule out the possibility that recovered patients may still excrete a small amount of virus ... but it is important to conduct more tests and studies to understand how long a patient will continue to excrete the virus after they have recovered," said Director of Health Dr Margaret Chan.

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