New SARS travel warning issued
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|Wed, 04-23-2003 - 2:47pm|
MSNBC News Services
Responding to the global spread of the deadly SARS virus, the World Health Organization on Wednesday counseled against travel to Beijing, China's Shanxi province and Toronto, Canada's business capital.
THE WARNING came amid other signals Wednesday reflecting the concern and spread of the virus:
China said another 147 people had come down with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, and nine more people had died. Beijing officials suspended school for two weeks because of the outbreak.
Canada raised its SARS death toll by one, to 15.
Singapore also saw its toll rise by one, to 17, the first death there in five days. Alarm was growing over an outbreak among vendors at the city-state's largest vegetable market and the government threatened to jail people violating quarantine.
THIRD COUNTRY TO JOIN LIST?
WHO's recommendation to postpone non-essential travel to Beijing, Shanxi and Toronto will be in effect for at least three weeks, twice the maximum incubation period, David Heymann, WHO director of communicable diseases, told reporters.
Part of a third country might join the list by Monday, he said, without identifying it. With the new warning, Toronto becomes the first place outside Asia on the list. The city was also the first place outside Asia where the disease was detected.
WHO on April 4 had issued travel warnings for the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, where SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is believed to have begun, and for Hong Kong.
"As was the case for Hong Kong and Guangdong, we now have (additionally) these areas which have a high magnitude of disease, a great risk of transmission locally and have also been exporting cases to other countries," Heymann said.
The illness, whose symptoms include high fever, a dry cough and difficulty breathing, has killed more than 250 people around the world.
Most patients survive, but health officials say the mortality rate has risen from four percent to 5.9 percent and there is no known cure.
Beijing, a city of 14 million people, has reported almost 700 SARS cases and 35 deaths, out of 106 nationwide. Shanxi has the third highest number of cases in China, 157 cases with seven deaths, according to health ministry figures.
Canada has reported 15 deaths, all in the Toronto area, and 306 suspected or probable cases, including 136 in Ontario province.
BEIJING EXODUS, SCHOOLS CLOSE
China said Wednesday that another 147 people came down with SARS, raising the national figure to 2,305, and that nine more had died.
Beijing, reeling from a huge jump in cases over the past few days, reported 105 of the new cases, and seven of the deaths.
New precautions taken Wednesday include closing Beijing's primary and secondary schools, which have 1.7 million students, through May 7, resulting in the cancellation of mid-term exams and field trips.
And Beijing authorities said they plan to invoke emergency measures to quarantine people exposed to SARS and restrict access to buildings where there are infections.
The statement, released by the local television station, did not provide details on how the new measures will be enforced or where people will be quarantined.
Other news reports said Beijing's airport had set up an infrared body temperature scanner to check passengers for fever, a SARS symptom. They said similar devices are to be set up at train stations and airports in Shanghai, China's biggest city.
As panic buying spread in Beijing amid fears that it would become a closed city, thousands of people thronged its main railway station to get out of town.
"I'm going home because I'm scared of getting sick," said migrant worker Deng Pao after managing to buy a ticket to his home province of Henan. "I've been in Beijing for two months and had a good job, but it's not worth it."
People wearing white cotton masks waited for hours outside rather than linger in crowded waiting rooms.
"My train doesn't leave for another six hours, but I'm not waiting inside," said Cao Shu, a student whose university halted all classes two days ago because of SARS fears.
HOPE IN HONG KONG
The outbreak has spread across Asia, where other governments have taken more aggressive measures in response, in contrast with the Chinese government, which has been criticized for allegedly covering up the severity of its outbreak.
In Hong Kong, where authorities quickly imposed quarantine measures early in the outbreak, 200,000 secondary students were able to return to school Tuesday after three weeks at home. But concerns remained that infections in Hong Kong would rise because of its proximity to China.
Upon returning to school, the teens were told to wear surgical masks and take their temperatures daily. Younger students remained at home, and a few schools refused to reopen.
Some experts said the decline in cases in Hong Kong this week was encouraging, but they also said a three-day decline was inconclusive.
"You really have to look at trends -- the daily figure or two days or three days doesn't really mean anything," said Malik Peiris, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong. "Really, what you need to look at is maybe on a week, two-week basis, is there a consistent trend downward? Then, one can feel more confident."
Hong Kong would appear to be heading in the right direction if new cases dropped into the single digits and stayed there, said Henry Niman, a Harvard University instructor who teaches surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Case numbers Tuesday were 32, with 22 cases Sunday and Monday. At times, daily case numbers have hit 40.
"It wouldn't mean Hong Kong was out of the woods, but it would be an indication things are contracting in Hong Kong rather than expanding," Niman said Tuesday. "It needs to continue going down, and getting into single digits on an ongoing basis would be a good indication things are getting better."
Hong Kong recently began quarantining the families of SARS victims, while stepping up efforts to find potential contacts. Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said Monday that those measures had led to the detection of 150 suspected cases.
Tung said Hong Kong was "slowly but surely getting the figures stabilized" and added that he was growing increasingly optimistic about containing SARS. The disease has now sickened more than 1,400 people in Hong Kong and killed 99, with five new deaths reported Tuesday, most of them in octogenarians with other chronic illnesses.
Although Tung expressed optimism about defeating SARS, he has not predicted how soon, and officials have not said what would need to be seen before victory could be claimed.
MAY DAY CANCELED
In China, the government canceled the weeklong May Day holiday to discourage people from traveling and spreading the disease.
Tens of millions of travelers had been expected to fill trains, planes, buses and hotels across China during the holiday, and the cancellation deals a potential blow to the nation's economy.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in a speech delivered last week and published Monday, said the health system was so inadequate that an epidemic could spread "before we know it" and that "the consequences could be too dreadful to contemplate."
"If you do not have the resources to deal with SARS, I think we're for a very big outbreak in China," said Henk Bekedam, the World Health Organization representative in China. "I think it will be quite a challenge to contain SARS within China, especially those provinces which have very limited resources."
WHO experts arrived Monday in Shanghai to inspect hospitals and ascertain the scope of the SARS problem. Government officials have confirmed only two cases in the nation's financial hub and are following nine suspected cases.
Cases have also appeared in various parts of China, including the northern region of Inner Mongolia, the eastern province of Zhejiang and Guangxi in the south.
SARS is caused by a form of the coronavirus, previously known as a cause of the common cold.
Coronaviruses usually have been neglected by drug companies because colds go away on their own. But scientists throughout the world now are developing new tests and screening for new treatments against the virus.
SARS is spread by coughing and sneezing, but health experts say it may also be transmitted when people touch objects, such as elevator buttons, or that it could be passed on in fecal matter. Symptoms include a high fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. There is no known cure, although people treated early enough usually recover.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.