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China sees no light at end of tunnel

Beijing, May 13 (Reuters): The SARS epidemic is showing no signs of fading in China, even though the number of cases is declining, WHO experts said today as Taiwan reported more infections and Greece said it may have its first case.

China said its death toll from the virus rose by 10 to 262 — more than half the world’s total — and said 80 more people had come down with the disease, 48 of them in Beijing, currently the hardest hit place in the world.

That was the fourth straight day of fewer than the 100 or more new cases in Beijing reported for more than two weeks.

But the World Health Organisation said that did not mean it could see light at the end of the tunnel in a country battling to keep SARS from spreading into rural regions where health care is poor at best, although there was hope. “We may be seeing a downward trend,” WHO consultant Keiji Fukuda told a news conference. “The bottom line is that it is too early to say the epidemic is tailing down, but we do hope to see that in the next few weeks.”

The lower numbers of new cases is helping ease the panic that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome spread in Beijing and Hong Kong, where 225 people have died, and more people are emerging from their homes.

But there were ominous signs that the previously unknown virus, which appeared in southern China in November, was starting to slow China’s economic growth. China, the world’s fastest growing major economy, said growth in foreign direct investment (FDI) and domestic savings slowed in April. Some economists said worse was to come for the country that overtook the US last year as the top destination for FDI.

“I think the SARS impact on actual FDI will be more severe starting from this month, or even over the next couple months,” said Chen Xingdong, an economist with investment bank BNP Paribas Peregrine in Beijing.

The damaging economic ripples were also affecting Taiwan, where 30 people have died. The government said it expected SARS to lop 2.9 per cent off export orders in the second quarter of this year compared with the first three months. A Thai survey showed economic confidence fell in April from March, in part because of SARS, though it has only a handful of cases.

Airlines, among the industries most hurt by SARS, illustrated their pain in hard numbers. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s main carrier, said its passenger traffic fell a year-on-year 65.7 per cent in April. China Southern, based in Guangdong, said it carried 36.5 per cent fewer passengers in April than in the same month of last year. Overall, passenger traffic on Chinese airlines fell a year-on-year 25.7 per cent, the government said.

From Guangdong, SARS has spread to more than 30 countries and Greece said it may have its first case — a foreign female flight attendant who arrived from Hong Kong. “I stress this is not a confirmed case yet,” health minister Costas Stephanis told Greek television.

But the main worry is China, which covered up the extent of the outbreak until last month, and WHO’s Fukuda said there was still not enough information, adding the 2.5 million military was a problem. “While numbers of cases in military populations are being reported to civilian authorities, key details about those cases is not being shared with the civilian authorities.”

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