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Virus toll rises in Hong Kong, Cathay rings alarm

Hong Kong, April 13 (Reuters): Hong Kong reported a sharp jump in deaths from the SARS virus today as Asia’s fourth largest airline said it could soon ground its fleet if passenger numbers fell further.

In a further sign that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was far from being contained in Hong Kong, the government said five more people had died and a further 42 had been infected with the flu-like virus.

It was the largest jump in the death toll in weeks. In total, 40 people have died of SARS in Hong Kong since the epidemic began in the city in March. At least 1,150 have been infected.

The virus has spread by air travellers to nearly 20 countries, killing 128 people and infecting nearly 3,200 worldwide. Singapore and Canada reported three more deaths each.

The illness has crippled tourism in Asia and forced airlines to cut flights sharply. Economists say the longer the crisis lasts the deeper it will eat into the region’s economies and it could push some, including Hong Kong, back into recession.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways said in an internal memo the company was losing $3 million a day.

The airline is carrying only a third of its usual traffic volume and a senior official said the company could not rule out grounding its fleet next month if things got worse.

”If demand falls still further we will have to respond accordingly,” said Tony Tyler, director of corporate development.

”Clearly we can't rule out any particular course of action, but we will respond to circumstances.”

Hong Kong's airport authority said 195 flights, or 37 percent of those scheduled, were cancelled on Sunday. Passenger numbers at the airport have fallen more than 60 percent in recent days.

Canada, which has the third-largest number of SARS cases, said its death toll rose to 13, while there were more than 270 probable or suspected cases of infection. Thousands of people have been quarantined.

LONG HAUL

Singapore's death toll rose to 12 and four new cases of the disease were reported but the government said primary and secondary schools would reopen on April 14 and 16, respectively, after having been closed since late last month.

”We are in this for the long haul,” Health Minister Lim Hng Kian said when asked if the virus was under control in Singapore.

SARS can lead to severe pneumonia and health officials say they are still not sure exactly how the virus spreads, although close contact with an infected person appears to be the main method of transmission. About four percent of those infected die.

The virus surfaced in southern China in November before spreading to Hong Kong and elsewhere. China has the highest number of deaths and infections by the virus, which is new to science and has no known cure.

Affected countries have taken dramatic control measures, from home quarantine for thousands of suspected cases, to banning tourists from China.

Malaysia banned Chinese tourists last week and in response Beijing has advised travel agencies not to organise tours to SARS-infected areas such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, local media said. It has not asked operators to halt trips to Hong Kong, however.

Late on Saturday Malaysia temporarily lifted travel curbs on visitors from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Canada.

DIRE AIRLINE OUTLOOK

The World Health Organisation issued an advisory this month against travel to southern China and Hong Kong. The measure has further cut the number of people travelling to Hong Kong, one of Asia's main financial centres and top tourist destinations.

Hard-hit Cathay is carrying roughly 10,000 passengers every day, down from 30,000 in ordinary circumstances.

”We forecast that the number of passengers could fall to less than 6,000 per day in May, in which case we will have to consider grounding the entire passenger fleet,” Nick Rhodes, Cathay's director of flight operations, said in an internal memo seen by Reuters on Saturday.

”We are literally hemorrhaging cash Ä approximately US$3 million per day,” he said in the memo, which was posted internally on Friday.

Tyler said Cathay had no plans to cancel all passenger flights. The airline has already cut 42 percent of its flights.

China says 59 people have died of SARS and more than 1,300 are infected. The illness has spread to a number of areas in China, most recently impoverished Inner Mongolia.

WHO officials have said the epidemic was being contained elsewhere in the world but they were worried about China and the ability of some infected areas of the mainland to recognise and control the illness.

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