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Virus alarm in China hinterland

Beijing, May 7 (Reuters): China said today the number of SARS cases in Beijing, the worst affected place in the world, may soon begin falling, but that the virus could wreak havoc in the vast hinterlands.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told the Cabinet to urgently take preventive measures in rural areas, where “basic rural medical facilities are weak”.

“The countryside has the channels and potential risk for a SARS outbreak to spread,” the People’s Daily quoted him as saying. Latest figures showed the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus had killed at least 18 more people and infected nearly 200 in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The worldwide death toll neared 500 with more than 7,300 cumulative infections.

The World Health Organisation said China was the key to containing global outbreaks of the flu-like virus.

A team of four WHO experts was to visit Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing and is home to some of the capital’s “floating population” of migrant workers, tomorrow to assess the ability of local healthcare systems to cope with an outbreak.

The number of probable SARS cases in Hebei has risen sharply in the last few days, WHO said on its Website (www.who.int). Most of China’s SARS cases have been in Beijing and the southern city of Guangzhou with relatively few cases in the countryside so far.

But tens of thousands of people are thought to have left Beijing and other SARS-hit areas and possibly carrying the disease around the world’s most populous country.

Alarm, if not the virus itself, is spreading in the hinterlands. Some villages have set up roadblocks to keep away people coming from Beijing and sporadic incidents of rioting against SARS quarantine centres have been reported.

Thousands have been quarantined in the eastern city of Nanjing. Police arrested three and fined others after around 30 people tried to break out of their confinement at a motel, the China News Service reported today. China’s health ministry said today five more people had died of SARS and another 159 were infected, taking the national death toll to 219 and cases to 4,560. Three of the new deaths were in Beijing along with 97 of the latest infections.

The number of cases in Beijing would begin to fall in a week to 10 days, but it would take longer to bottom out, Xinhua news agency said today, quoting Liang Wannian, deputy chief of the Beijing Health Administration. Hong Kong, the worst SARS-hit area on earth outside of China proper, said the virus had killed 11 more people in the territory and infected another eight. The number of new cases was below 10 for the fourth straight day, but not enough to meet WHO’s criteria for lifting a travel warning against Hong Kong that has badly hit the economy.

Taiwan, which has seen its outbreak worsen in recent days, reported two more deaths and another 28 infections today. A spokesman said that under a worst-case scenario, the number of probable infections could skyrocket to 800 from the current 125.

SCREENING, QUARANTINES WORKING

SARS, which has no standard treatment, originated in southern China in November, moved to nearby Hong Kong and was then spread around the world by travellers.

The WHO said on its website that screening of air passengers and quarantines had worked to start controlling the disease.

Singapore, which has taken some of the toughest measures, said on Wednesday it could declare the epidemic under control if it goes 10 more days without a new case.

Twenty-seven people have died from SARS in Singapore out of 204 reported cases. But the number of people in hospital is at a five-week low and only four new cases emerged last week.

The United States has already removed the tiny city-state from its list of SARS-affected areas to avoid. The advisory remains in effect for Taiwan, China and Hong Kong.

SARS, which kills up to 10 percent of patients, is marked by a high fever, dry cough and pneumonia.

Roche Holding AG said on Wednesday it was on track to have a SARS test ready in June but it might take at least 18 months for it to be ready for distribution beyond the research community.

The disease continued to take an economic toll.

Australia's Qantas Airways said on Wednesday the virus had forced it to axe more staff and shave its profit forecast for 2002/2003. Taiwan's largest carrier, China Airlines, said it was talking with Boeing and Airbus to delay delivery of 18 planes due to the chilling impact of SARS on travel.

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