The global toll from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) climbed above 500 dead and 7,000 infected yesterday as China described its crisis as "grim" and announced that 120 bureaucrats had been fired or punished for mishandling or even concealing cases of the disease.
In one province, Communist Party members have been told to revive the ancient custom of bowing instead of shaking hands to prevent disease transmission.
"The current SARS situation is still grim, and the economic impact is more pronounced each day," the official Xinhua News Agency said in its report of a Chinese Cabinet meeting that ordered measures to protect exports and investments.
Li Kui-wai, an economist at the City University of Hong Kong, predicted China's gross domestic product could fall by 1 percent to 2 percent due to SARS.
In Moscow, Russian officials ordered airlines to suspend reservations on flights to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan because of SARS and to be prepared to cancel all flights.
China announced five more SARS fatalities and Hong Kong four, raising the global number of deaths to at least 507 yesterday.
SARS has killed 208 people in Hong Kong and 224 in China -- half in Beijing.
In Hong Kong a 100-year-old woman was among the new victims. One of the Chinese victims was from Shanghai -- the first reported SARS fatality in the nation's most populous city.
So far, SARS has mostly been an urban disease. But authorities fear it might spread into the countryside, where the majority of China's 1.3 billion people live amid a shortage of doctors and hospitals unable to cope with epidemics.
WHO investigators were due yesterday to go to Hebei, a province bordering Beijing and where there has been a marked surge in cases.
A new unidentified pneumonia has appeared in the jungles of Cambodia. An outbreak has been controlled, but seven people have died. Doctors say they are baffled by it, just like they were initially by SARS.
SARS first surfaced as a mystery illness in southern China last November, when it was described only as an atypical pneumonia.
The new illness has SARS-like symptoms including fever, coughing and breathing problems, but sufferers also have diarrhea and maintain normal white blood cell counts.
SARS has taken the lives of many health professionals. Doctors and nurses working in SARS wards across Asia are being hailed as heroes who put their own lives at risk to save others.
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