| A girl at a railway station in Wuhan, China. (Reuters)
Beijing, May 15 (Reuters): China, haunted by the possibility of SARS rampaging through its vast countryside, has threatened to execute or jail for life anyone who intentionally spreads the killer virus.
The news came as Britain reported its first confirmed case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and authorities in Taiwan quarantined hundreds of people at three major hospitals amid fears of a widespread epidemic on the island.
Britain's Health Protection Agency said the patient had recovered and had not passed on the infection.
China, which has reported 271 deaths and about two-thirds of the world’s 7,700 known SARS cases, issued a harsh interpretation of its laws on contagious disease after reports that people were violating quarantine orders or refusing to admit to the symptoms.
“Intentionally spreading sudden contagious disease pathogens, endangering public security or serious personal injury, death or heavy loss of public or private property will be punishable by from 10 years to life in prison or the death penalty,” Xinhua news agency said.
Human rights groups said the punishment, which was laid down by the Supreme Court and the chief prosecutor, was harsh. “The measure is too extreme and the punishment too heavy,” Hong Kong-based rights activist Frank Lu said. “It violates the international human rights covenant and was not approved by the National People’s Congress,” Lu said.
But WHO, which has consistently warned of SARS spreading in China’s countryside, said people must act responsibly and called for screening of blood and organ donors for possible SARS infection, though there were no known cases of such transmission so far.
“I think it sounds very tough,” WHO representative in China Henk Bekedam. “But I do believe that people have a certain responsibility and it's very important that people understand what that responsibility is.
Chinese officials acknowledged that health controls might not be sufficient to contain the epidemic.
”The potential risk and channels for the SARS epidemic to spread to the countryside persist,” said Vice Agriculture Minister Liu Jian.“We need to rouse utmost attention and caution.”
Britain's Health Protection Agency said on Thursday a patient with the first confirmed case of SARS had recovered and had not passed on the infection. No further public health action was required, it said. But there are three more possible cases.
Shanghai reported its second death from the respiratory virus that has also spelt disaster for the economy. A global tourism body said the virus will cost China about three million jobs in the industry this year.
FEAR IN TAIWAN
Taiwan, with only a few cases of SARS until late April, now has 264 confirmed cases and 34 deaths Ä the worst in the world after mainland China and Hong Kong, which has seen 234 deaths.
Traffic has disappeared from Taipei's usually bustling streets while department stores, hotels and restaurants have virtually no customers.
But the worst blow has been the quarantining of about 400 patients and health workers at two major hospitals and news that another 100 will be quarantined at a third.
Taiwan's government has ordered all subway passengers to wear face masks and cancelled leave for the military. The army's chemical warfare unit has become a common sight as it disinfects the capital district by district.
Taiwan has also applied for WHO observer status saying it needed information that could save lives in the fight against SARS. Taiwan was ousted from the United Nations in 1971 and replaced by its arch rival, China.
But there was good news for Canada and Singapore.
In a regular update on the spread of the disease, the WHO said it had taken Canada off its list of spreading areas.
Canada, with 24 SARS deaths, is the only country outside Asia where people have died of SARS, all of them in the area around the financial capital Toronto.
The WHO welcomed aggressive action in Singapore to isolate sick nurses and patients at the city state's largest mental hospital Ä the patients had high fever which is a key symptom of SARS Ä but said another illness might be responsible.
Singapore, with some of the world's strictest anti-SARS measures, looked to have the disease under control until the possible cases were announced on Wednesday.
With the world's fourth-highest death toll at 28, the island state had gone 15 days without a new infection Ä five days short of the WHO target for being taken off a list of affected regions.
Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan said it would take at least 48 hours to determine if the outbreak of fever at the mental hospital is SARS.