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Since 1st March, 1999
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Beijing wields the axe as virus toll mounts

Beijing, April 20 (Reuters): China sacked its health minister and Beijing’s mayor today after reporting an alarming rise in SARS deaths and cases in the capital, a tacit admission that officials had earlier hidden the extent of the disease.

Chinese authorities said at least 12 more people died and 300 more were infected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus, almost all in Beijing. They also cancelled the week-long May Day holiday to discourage people from travelling and spreading the disease.

Elsewhere, authorities in Hong Kong said seven more people had died and 22 more were infected, taking the death toll in the city to 88, the highest in the world. Singapore closed down one of the city-state’s largest vegetable markets after three workers there were infected by the disease, but did not report any new fatalities.

China’s new SARS figures represented a 10-fold increase in the number of cases in Beijing and appeared to back criticism that officials, initially at least, had tried to hide the extent of the disease. Authorities also said there were an additional 402 suspected cases of SARS in Beijing.

Within an hour of announcing the new figures, the official Xinhua news agency carried a terse one-paragraph report saying health minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing deputy party boss Meng Xuenong, the city mayor, had been sacked. No reason was given.

“There was no other way,” said a source with close ties to government leaders. “The situation in Beijing got totally out of control and someone had to be held accountable.”

The sackings were intended to put provincial leaders on notice that there should be no effort to cover up the spread of the disease, and to the world that China was serious about curbing the SARS outbreak, analysts said.

The disease, which is fatal in more than 5 per cent of cases and has no known cure, has now killed 203 people and infected nearly 3,900 around the world after first surfacing in southern China last year.

No one is sure in how many ways it is spread.

SARS is passed in droplets, by coughing and sneezing, but the World Health Organisation 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.

China’s deputy health minister Gao Qiang, the top health official after his boss was sacked, blamed the surge in cases on a health care system ill-prepared to handle a sudden outbreak such as SARS, which emerged in Guangdong in November and has been spread around the world by air travellers since February.

He said also the Golden Week holidays in early May to mark the international workers movement were being cancelled in China to discourage travel.

“The purpose of such an act is to avoid the flow of massive numbers of people, which potentially could lead to the spread of this epidemic,” he told a news conference. “This measure will mean major losses for tourism revenues. However, people’s lives and health have to be put above everything else,” Gao said.

Tens of millions of travellers had been expected to be on the move, filling trains, planes, buses and hotels throughout the massive country.

China has in recent years extended the May 1 holiday to a full week in a bid to spur consumption. Gao said China would still allow the normal one-day holiday, but the extended week had been cancelled to discourage widespread travel.

But the WHO said the threat of a global SARS pandemic was receding. “The vast majority of countries reporting probable SARS cases are dealing with a small number of imported cases,” it said in an update on its website at

“Experience has shown that when these cases are promptly detected, isolated, and managed...further spread to hospital staff and family members either does not occur at all or results in a very small number of secondary infections,” it said.

But the WHO said it was concerned about the outbreaks in Hong Kong and Canada. It said a large and sudden cluster of almost simultaneous cases seen in residents of a Hong Kong housing estate had raised the possibility of transmission from an environmental source.

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