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Fresh cases, deaths hit HK

Hong Kong/Beijing, April 5 (Reuters): Hong Kong reported 39 new infections and three deaths from a deadly respiratory virus today, as newspapers in the battered Chinese region warned of a health care system in crisis.

The latest figures took the total of confirmed cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong to 800, and the local death toll to 20, a government spokesman said.

The pneumonia-like disease, which may have originated in southern China, hit the city in March and has been spread around the world by air travellers.

Malaysia reported its first likely death from SARS, which has now killed more than 80 people and infected around 2,400 worldwide. Singapore, with six fatalities, said it would keep its schools closed for several more days to allay public fears.

Beijing, meanwhile, began sending its first daily reports on new SARS infections and deaths to the World Health Organisation, nearly five months after the first victim came down with the virus in its southern province of Guangdong, bordering Hong Kong.

China, which has seen 136,000 foreign tourists cancel visits and fears more economic fall-out, issued a muted apology for its handling of the crisis so far, through Li Liming, director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Li told domestic media in Beijing yesterday: “Today we apologise here to all of you that our health departments did not have enough close cooperation with the media.”

“We did not make good use of our health team to help conduct mass science publicity which would have helped people grasp an understanding of the disease, enhance their ability to prevent the disease and be better aware of their own health,” Li said.

But it was unclear at whom the apology was directed: foreign media were not invited to Li’s news conference and his apology went unreported in the Chinese state media today.

China has come under fire for failing to report early and openly on the disease that emerged in Guangdong in November, infecting hundreds there before spreading in March to Hong Kong and beyond.

Its state-controlled media operated under a virtual blackout even as Hong Kong and Singapore announced quarantines, school closures and gave daily updates on infections.

Hunt for clues

The WHO has issued an unprecedented warning against travel to Hong Kong and Guangdong, and some foreign diplomats and businessmen have shipped their families back home.

In the Guangdong capital Guangzhou, a team of WHO experts on a hunt for clues on the disease met provincial health officials and recovered victims of SARS, and travelled to Foshan where the first case emerged in November. China, which has suffered more than half of all deaths and infections from the disease, fears the effects of SARS on tourism and the flow of foreign direct investment.

Guangdong is a key engine of growth for China. Foshan, for example, makes 80 per cent of the world’s microwave ovens.

Chinese health minister Zhang Wenkang has stressed that the outbreak is under “effective control”, and Guangzhou still plans to host its flagship trade fair this year.

But analysts say that global high-tech supply routes are threatened by SARS-related manufacturing disruptions and travel bans.

Millions of Chinese are due to be on the move over the week-long May 1 Labour Day holidays. China, which counts on three “Golden Week” holidays a year to help fuel consumer spending, appeared eager to keep public concern at a minimum.

“All of China’s tourist attractions are guaranteed to be safe and healthy,” said a headline in the People's Daily.

The public is not so sure. At Beijing’s Babaoshan Cemetery for Revolutionary Martyrs, some mourners wore facemasks to visit the graves of ancestors today for the annual Ching Ming tomb-sweeping festival.

Hard-hit Hong Kong has seen its health care system thrown into crisis, as doctors and health care workers succumbing to infection can no longer cope with treating other life-threatening illnesses at some hospitals, newspapers reported today.

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