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Global clampdown to block virus

Hong Kong/Singapore, April 11 (Reuters): Hong Kong reported two more deaths and 61 fresh cases of SARS today as governments across the world took tough steps to stop the virus at their borders.

As the worldwide death toll from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) rose to 114 and infected more than 3,000, Hong Kong began quarantining relatives of SARS patients and Singapore struggled to contain fresh outbreaks of the virus that has provoked mounting fear and changed lifestyles across the region.

The US consulate in Shanghai said in an e-mail seen by Reuters two Americans were among nine being treated at the Shanghai Pulmonary Disease Hospital with symptoms of SARS.

With 56 reported deaths and 1,291 cases, China has been the country worst affected by SARS, which has no cure as yet.

The US state department said on its website at www.travel.state.gov that China was imposing strict quarantine measures not widely publicised on SARS victims.

The flu-like disease, which originated in southern China in November, hit Hong Kong in March and has been spread around the world by air travellers.

The virus has now killed 32 people in Hong Kong, which has recorded about a third of all cases worldwide. It has especially hit hospital staff, who have warned the Hong Kong health care system is on the brink of collapse.

Hong Kong today began quarantining 150 relatives of SARS patients for 10 days in case they, too, had been infected.

People in Hong Kong jammed telephone help lines to pour out their fears and anxieties.

“Some are really scared that if they get the disease they will be quarantined and lose their jobs because of that,” said Ida Ma, a social worker with Catholic help group Caritas.

“Many live in housing estates where infections have occurred and they talk about how taxi drivers refuse to take them. Some have even been turned away by private doctors.”

Most of the territory’s nearly seven million people now wear surgical masks in public places and offices to ward off SARS, whose symptoms include fever, cough and severe pneumonia.

“I have never seen anything so bad all my life and I am very old. I don’t know if I can live to see the day when I can walk around without my mask,” said grandmother Lee Ah-miu, 73.

The disease has already delivered a heavy economic blow across Asia, hitting hotels, airlines and the tourist industry. Analysts have been busy revising down economic growth forecasts.

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