Singapore, May 14 (Reuters): Singapore reported a possible outbreak of SARS at its biggest mental hospital and Taiwan said the disease may have spread to the island’s south, threatening hopes that the deadly virus was slowly coming under control.
China, the world’s worst affected country, redoubled efforts to stamp out the widely prevalent practice of spitting in public as it announced the lowest daily tally of fresh SARS cases since the government began reporting accurate figures last month.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, for which there is no known cure, is spread mainly by droplets. Over 7,500 people in 30 countries have been infected so far and almost 600 have died.
Researchers in Germany said, however, that they had found a weakness in the virus and that a drug being tested against the common cold could be modified to battle SARS. Such a drug could be designed in a matter of months, they said.
Governments around the world have been battling to stem the spread of SARS, isolating those infected, confining anyone believed to have been exposed to the virus in mass quarantines.
Those moves appear to have worked in Vietnam, where five people died earlier this year, and last month the World Health Organisation declared the country SARS-free. Singapore, with some of the world’s strictest anti-SARS measures in place, looked to be headed in the same direction.
But late yesterday, the government said 24 patients and three nurses at the Institute of Mental Health had been isolated with possible SARS and three other nurses had been quarantined. It was unclear how the mentally ill patients might have contracted SARS. Most were more than 60-years-old and suffering from chronic mental ailments, health officials said.
Singapore had gone 15 days without a new infection — five days short of the WHO’s target for being taken off a list of SARS-affected regions that also includes China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Toronto. “The cases have to be assumed to be due to SARS until proven otherwise,” said Bey Mui Leng, a ministry of health spokeswoman.
Singapore had quarantined more than 3,000 people at home, temporarily shut all schools and barred visitors at hospitals while introducing widespread temperature checks at border posts to stem the nine-week epidemic.
Taiwan was relatively free of SARS until late April but cases have since risen rapidly and a total of about 240 people have now been infected there, mostly in the capital Taipei and other areas of the island's north.
On Wednesday, it reported 19 suspected infections at a single hospital in Kaohsiung in the south, Taiwan's second city.
Health officials said it was likely that a woman who visited a SARS-hit hospital in Taipei last month had spread the virus to 11 nurses and eight patients at Kaohsiung's Chang Gung Memorial Hospital.
They said an additional 110 health workers at the hospital had been placed in quarantine. The officials tried to reassure people that there was no need for the hospital to be sealed.
But the biggest worry is in China, where more than 5,100 people have been infected and over 260 killed. Although only 55 new cases were reported on Wednesday, down from a daily average of about 100 in previous weeks, the disease there has so far been confined to Beijing and other big cities.
There are fears, though, that migrant labourers could spread SARS to rural areas, where two-thirds of the country's 1.3 billion people live, and where public health facilities are poor.
”Although peasants only account for a relatively light six percent or so of the total confirmed cases, a steady upward trend started to appear from May 1,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Xu Dezhong, a senior analyst with the national SARS prevention and treatment team, as saying.
The government has launched a campaign against spitting in public and discouraged internal travel.
In some areas, farmers are telling relatives and neighbours working away from home not to return for the harvest.
”Our medical conditions here are indeed very bad. But the measures we've taken against SARS have been quite thorough,” said Qin Xianfa, 33, who works at a small ferroalloy factory in a town in central Henan province.
”All the officials are under a lot of pressure.” (Additional reporting by Alice Hung in Taipei and Jonathan Ansfield and John Ruwitch in Beijing)