Tue, May 13, 2003 - Page 1 News List

SARS cases pass 5,000 mark in China


The number of SARS cases in China passed 5,000 yesterday.

As the grim statistics rolled in, the World Health Organization (WHO) visited a poor and medically backward Chinese province that could be fertile ground for a future, and potentially devastating, epidemic.

Highlighting the disease's global nature, Canadian officials angrily rejected suggestions that a Finnish man contracted SARS in Toronto, a city which insists its outbreak is under control.

In Malaysia, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder pressed on with a Southeast Asia tour despite an admission by officials traveling with him of strong last-minute pressure not to go because of SARS.

``The chancellor has decided to take this trip to send a signal. He wants to show solidarity with the region,'' Germany's Ambassador to Vietnam Wolfgang Massing said. Schroeder's entourage was cut from 120 to 30 as an anti-SARS precaution.

Yesterday's fatalities here, as well as 12 more in China and three in Hong Kong, brought the international death toll from SARS to at least 559. There were at least 7,400 known SARS cases.

China remains the hardest hit country with at least 252 dead.

Although some Chinese infection rates have been declining, yesterday's 75 cases raised its tally to 5,013.

Thousands of people are being kept in quarantine amid fears that the disease is spreading from cities into the impoverished countryside, where medical facilities would not be able to cope with a sweeping outbreak.

WHO visited southern Guangxi province, fearing it could be hit by an epidemic that could possibly be brought in by hundreds of thousands of returning migrant workers.

"Guangxi is susceptible to infection because of its location," WHO spokeswoman Mangai Balasegaram said. "It's a poor region. It would be ... less able to cope."

For more than a week Hong Kong has reported falling infection rates, including only five new cases yesterday. Encouraged by this, the WHO said it might ease conditions for removing a travel advisory against the territory, although the ban itself will stay for now.

In Finland, the University of Turku Central Hospital said a Finnish man who had been on vacation in SARS-hit Toronto in late April had probably contracted the illness.

It said the patient was recovering well, and that no one who had been in contact with him had shown any of the disease's symptoms: fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.

Officials in Canada, eager to avoid disruptions to its tourism, disputed that there was a Toronto link to the case.

Dr. Colin D'Cunha, health commissioner in Ontario province, said the idea was "preposterous," and that the only way the man could have been infected in Toronto was through SARS patients in a hospital.

"Unless somebody managed to visit one of our hospitals despite the restrictions ... they couldn't have been exposed -- it's that blunt," he said. "I'm sure the [Finnish patient] had some respiratory symptoms and, simply put, was diagnosed with SARS because the person had spent some time in Toronto.''

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