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Virus slows in source China
- Fresh deaths in Hong Kong and Singapore

Hong Kong, April 7 (Reuters): A WHO expert today said the course of the deadly SARS appeared to be slowing at its source in southern China, while Hong Kong reported a spate of new cases of the mystery virus that has caused a global health scare.

Two more people died in Singapore of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), state media said today, days after the city-state showed signs of success of subduing the virus that has killed at least 100 people worldwide and infected more than 2,600.

The Hong Kong government today said SARS had infected 41 more people, bringing the total number of cases to 883, and hospitals were bracing for a possible tripling of cases. The pneumonia-like disease, which originated in China’s Guangdong province, hit Hong Kong in March and has been spread around the world by air travellers.

Robert Breiman, head of a WHO team investigating the outbreak in Guangdong, said today the number of SARS cases was slowing in the province and the virus was showing signs it might be weakening. “It does look like the disease rates are dropping quite a bit,” he said.

“The problem isn’t extinguished, which would be the nice place to get to. But it’s occurring in lower frequency, lower incidence than it was during the peak time in February,” he said.

“We’re still not ruling out the possibility that the virus itself could become burned out and become less and less transmittable,” Breiman said.

Some experts have suggested the SARS virus came from animals and mutated, then jumped to humans, but the team in Guangdong saw no evidence supporting that theory, he said.

The deadly virus has spread to nearly 20 countries, slashing tourism, cancelling events, closing schools and prompting economists to trim growth forecasts for parts of Asia.

Australia today added SARS to a list of diseases requiring quarantine, ranking it as dangerous as cholera and smallpox.

The virus has skirted Europe but Belgium’s health ministry said today it was looking into a possible case of SARS after a 56-year-old woman was hospitalised with symptoms of the disease in the port city of Antwerp over the weekend.

Hong Kong hospital authority chairman Leong Che-hung, speaking of a worst-case scenario, told local television late yesterday that health officials were preparing for up to 3,000 cases. He believed there would be sufficient manpower and facilities although intensive care units would be under pressure. Singapore, where eight people have died and which has the world’s fourth-highest number of cases, is battling to control SARS from spreading in the city state’s main hospital.

A doctor at Singapore General Hospital was confirmed to be infected, raising fears of a crack in the government’s strategy of isolating infected people. Twenty nurses at the hospital are also suspected of having SARS and have been isolated.

The fresh outbreak came after the government imposed strict control measures, placing more than 1,000 under home quarantine and closing schools.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong cancelled a trip to China over the SARS scare, but went ahead with a visit to India, where a health official said the Singapore delegation would be subjected to a health screening, though not Goh himself. Goh told Singaporeans to learn to live with the virus, because it would not disappear soon.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, whose government is grappling with its first big crisis since taking office in March, said China could control the spread of SARS and welcomed visitors.

Few are likely to heed the assurance. Some foreign health experts in Beijing believe cases there have gone unreported.

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