| A Chinese tourist at the Great Wall on Monday. (Reuters)
Beijing, April 21 (Reuters): China, where the government has admitted the number of SARS cases in Beijing is far higher than disclosed previously, may be facing a very big outbreak in its provinces, the World Health Organisation said today.
The disease — which has killed more than 200 people and infected about 4,000 in 25 countries — is spreading, with the Philippines saying it may have suffered its first SARS death, more fatalities in Hong Kong and more infections in Singapore.
But experts are particularly worried about China, where leaders have admitted the health-care system is poor in the countryside where 70 per cent of its 1.3 billion people live.
Late today, China said 193 new cases had been reported since Friday, taking the nationwide tally to 2,001. The official Xinhua news agency said 13 more people had died of SARS in the same period, raising the total to 92.
“If you do not have the resources to deal with SARS, I think we’re going for a very big outbreak in China,” Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China, said.
“I think it will be quite a challenge to contain SARS within China, especially those provinces which have very limited resources,” he said.
“We hope that the provinces will be ready,” he said. “Otherwise you might have in all the provinces at least 100 cases, and then you can make up the arithmetic.” China has 31 provinces, regions and major cities.
Premier Wen Jiabao, in a speech made last week and published today, said the health system was so inadequate an epidemic could spread “before we know it” and “the consequences could be too dreadful to contemplate”. Cases of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) have now appeared in various parts of China, including the northern region of inner Mongolia, the eastern province of Zhejiang and Guangdong and Guangxi in the south.
A day after the government said Beijing had under-reported its numbers dramatically — raising the number of cases tenfold to 339 — Bekedam also said the Chinese capital could have many more SARS victims in its hospitals.
Today, the health ministry reported via Xinhua a jump in the number in Beijing by another 143 cases to 482 over the weekend and seven more people had died, bringing the total to 25.
“The reason for the rapid increase in SARS patients in Beijing was attributed to the confirmation of certain suspected cases as SARS after further examination,” Xinhua said.
Bekedam said the WHO believed half the 402 cases reported yesterday as classified by the Beijing authorities as suspected SARS could be real cases.
The number of suspected cases in Beijing rose between Friday and Monday to 610, the ministry said.
Several other areas, including the mostly-Muslim western region of Xinjiang and the impoverished northern province of Shaanxi also reported suspected cases, it said.
Fear mixed with anger in Beijing as state media, silenced for weeks as SARS spread, let the floodgates open after the government reported the higher numbers and the health minister and city’s mayor were sacked yesterday for negligence.
SARS is passed in droplets, by coughing and sneezing, but the WHO is not ruling out the possibility that it may also be transmitted when people touch objects such as lift buttons, or that it could be passed on in faecal matter.