China yesterday reported its lowest toll of fresh SARS cases since coming clean with its numbers, but the World Health Organization (WHO) said it was still failing to include "a lot" of suspected sufferers with milder symptoms.
The tally of just 12 new cases of the deadly flu-like disease in the 24 hours to 10am yesterday was the smallest rise since April 16, four days before officials admitted a SARS cover-up and began reporting more openly.
The Chinese capital, the most infected city on the planet, had only seven new cases, the Health Ministry said as the national death toll rose to 289 and the number of cases to 5,236.
But Beijing health officials in charge of SARS diagnosis told the WHO that doctors were underreporting by omitting patients with milder symptoms, Daniel Chin, leader of a WHO team in the city, said.
"We confirmed today that, indeed, this approach was being used," he said, adding that those affected were patients with real pneumonia on a chest X-ray and symptoms but who recovered relatively quickly and had no contact history.
The steep slide in new SARS cases the last two weeks has defused panic in Beijing and helped send millions of people back to work and school.
China still has more than 2,000 suspected SARS cases -- more than 1,200 of them in Beijing.
Chin said hospitals were under obvious pressure to reduce their numbers of SARS patients and were not following the reporting guidelines as strictly as they should be, but he added that he did not think there was a new cover-up.
"I think clinicians are honestly having a difficult time dealing with the diagnosis," he said.
A health official said on Sunday hospitals were following WHO criteria to the letter.
But Chin said it was clear this was not so after the team talked with physicians and looked at medical records and X-rays at the Chaoyang and Chuiyangliu hospitals.