| Chinese girls put a mask on a replica of Mona Lisa in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Beijing, April 22 (Reuters): China and Hong Kong reported 10 new deaths from SARS today and Beijing tried to stop people from travelling to the vast countryside in a frantic effort to contain the deadly virus.
The official Xinhua news agency, quoting health ministry data, said the death toll in China — epicentre of a virus that has killed 236 people and infected nearly 4,300 in 25 countries — had risen by five to 97.
Hong Kong also reported five more deaths from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) for a total of 99, the highest in the world. The city reported 32 new cases of the flu-like disease.
After raising the number of cases in Beijing 13-fold in two days, China warned people against travelling to the provinces, which the World Health Organisation said may see big outbreaks. The warning was issued ahead of shortened “Golden Week” holidays marking the May 1 International Labour Day, when tens of millions of people were expected to travel to their home villages.
The WHO representative in China Henk Bekedam said it would be “quite a challenge to contain SARS” in China and “I think we’re going for a very big outbreak.”
That dire prediction was reinforced by Premier Wen Jiabao, who said in a speech the health system was ill prepared in the countryside, where 70 per cent of China’s 1.3 billion people live.
A SARS epidemic could spread “before we know it” and “the consequences could be too dreadful to contemplate”, he said.
Beijing has suspended classes at 280 schools in the city’s hi-tech district, Haidian — bowing to pressure from scared parents who had already withdrawn their children from school.
Singapore, also hit hard by SARS, has ordered twice daily temperature checks for all 500,000 school children.
China, where SARS first appeared in southern Guangdong province in November, reported 157 new cases of SARS today for a cumulative total of 2,158 — more than half the world’s total. Hong Kong has 1,434 cases.
The sudden surge of cases appeared to back allegations that Chinese officials had tried to hide the spread of the virus.
Health workers have accused authorities of ordering the transfer of SARS patients at two military hospitals in Beijing to another hospital while a team of WHO virologists visited.
Many doctors and nurses are angry because their hospitals have been turned into SARS wards and they are forced to treat SARS patients even though they lack the expertise and equipment.
In a move to soothe such anger, the Communist Party sacked the health minister and the Beijing mayor at the weekend. Wang Qishan, a troubleshooting economist, was appointed Beijing mayor today in an apparent bid to reassure foreign investors. Beijing is preparing to host the 2008 Olympics.
SARS has no known cure and is fatal in around 4 per cent of cases. Scientists are working feverishly on diagnostic tests, but a vaccine could be years away. The disease is taking a huge economic toll in Asia as people shun airlines and stay at home instead of shopping or dining out.