| A worker seals thermometers at a factory in Ningbo, in east China’s Zhejiang province, on Friday. (AFP)
Taipei, May 16 (Reuters): Taiwan’s health minister resigned today to take the blame for a string of SARS outbreaks at three major hospitals, three weeks after his counterpart in China was sacked following an alarming surge in the number of cases there.
As the political and economic impact of the virus spread across Asia and beyond, there was good news in Singapore where a cluster of suspected cases turned out to be influenza. This puts Singapore on track to be declared free of the deadly virus by the WHO.
Hong Kong, the place worst-hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome after mainland China, reported its lowest number of infections in a 24-hour period since the outbreak began, with only three new cases but also four more deaths.
Taiwan reported another death and 10 new probable cases of the virus. With 274 infections and 35 deaths, Taiwan has the third-highest number of SARS victims behind China and Hong Kong. “I feel that my supervision was inadequate,” Taiwan’s minister of health, Twu Shiing-jer, told parliament after tendering his resignation.
The straight-talking Twu said he was partly responsible for a chain of SARS infections at the island’s most reputable hospitals this week and for a shortage of protective masks. A Cabinet spokesman said prominent epidemiologist, Chen Chien-jen, the head of the health department’s SARS advisory committee, would take over as minister.
SARS has killed 610 people and infected more than 7,700 since first appearing in southern China late last year..
Taiwan had only a few isolated cases until late April.
Many blame a poorly managed case at a Taipei hospital for the severe outbreak it is now suffering.
The army dispatched 1,200 soldiers to disinfect Taipei city, Taiwan’s hardest-hit area.
Residents smiled and waved from windows as trucks drove by with masked soldiers, clad in white plastic suits, spraying disinfectant.
SARS has also taken a toll on Taiwan's economy, as it has on economies across the region, hammering consumer spending and leaving shops, restaurants and airports empty.
Taiwan cut its expectations for economic growth this year to 2.9 percent from 3.7 percent, and fears growth will slow another percentage point if SARS lasts until the year's end.
Britain confirmed its first case of SARS on Thursday. The Health Protection Agency said the patient had recovered and had not passed on the infection.
Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chock Tong said a new cluster of more than 30 suspected SARS cases at a mental hospital appeared to be influenza, putting Singapore on track to be declared free of the deadly virus by the World Health Organisation.
”Today I have very good news for you...they seem to be suffering from influenza,” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said.
A total of 28 people have died of SARS in Singapore but it has not repored a new case for 15 days and the WHO said it could be declared SARS-free by Sunday.
China reported four more deaths and another 39 SARS cases in the 24 hours to Friday morning, the lowest number of new cases since the government came clean with the figures last month.
China sacked its health minister after the government came under international pressure for not revealing the true extent of the SARS outbreak. Authorities have since taken a series of tough steps to tackle the disease and stop it spreading through its vast countryside.
China's official Xinhua news agency said on Thursday anyone who intentionally spread the virus could be jailed for like or even executed.
In Hong Kong, WHO experts said an unlucky combination of environmental and health factors led to the rapid spread of the virus in a housing estate in late March.
Hong Kong has had 1,706 SARS cases and 238 deaths but the epidemic has shown signs of abating locally with fresh infections falling to single digits for 13 days in a row.
But Deputy Director of Health Leung Pak-yin warned the number might not fall every day.“Numbers can fluctuate. We should look at the trend,” he told a news conference.
Japanese officials were trying to track the movements of a doctor from Taiwan who visited Japan this month and was quarantined with possible symptoms of SARS after returning home.