| A worker installs a webcam to collect images and temperatures of customers at a Beijing store. (Reuters)
Taipei, May 20 (Reuters): Taiwan reported a record daily rise in SARS infections and deaths today as the region picked through the economic fallout of the epidemic.
The department of health said probable SARS cases rose by 39 to 383 and a dozen more had died, bringing the death toll to 52. The figures contrast with a steady decline in cases in China and Hong Kong, the areas worst hit by the flu-like virus that has killed about 650 people around the world.
The World Health Organisation says Taiwan has the world’s fastest-growing outbreak of SARS. In a statement on its web site, the WHO said lapses in infection control, particularly in emergency rooms, may be a reason for the rapid spread in Taiwan.
A 12-year-old girl with a history of pneumonia is suspected to have died from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in northern Taiwan. If confirmed, the girl would be the youngest victim of the respiratory disease in Taiwan.
More than 90 per cent of Taiwan’s cases are the result of hospital infections, following a slew of outbreaks in at least six major hospitals in the past four weeks.
The Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan’s second biggest city became the latest hospital to quarantine medical staff, raising fears of another hospital outbreak.
As Taiwan battled to control the virus, economies in the region counted the cost.
A report co-authored by a member of Australia’s central bank board said today SARS would plunge Hong Kong into recession this year and could do the same in China if it persisted.
Economists Warwick McKibbin and Andrew Stoeckel said even if SARS was brought under control this year, it would cut Hong Kong’s projected 2003 gross domestic product by 5.5 per cent.
GDP could fall 2.4 per cent in China.
Underscoring the impact, Hong Kong said today the unemployment rate returned to last summer’s record of 7.8 per cent as SARS crippled the city’s tourism industry and hammered consumer spending. Economists predicted unemployment could climb higher in coming months before the economy improved.
Australia said tourist arrivals showed their biggest drop in April since records began 33 years ago, hitting a five-year low as SARS and the Iraq war kept people home.
China reported five more people had died from SARS and another 17 were infected in the 24 hours to 0200 GMT today. Hong Kong said another two people had died of the illness and four others infected.
Health officials in Beijing denied on Tuesday a rapid drop in cases was the result of intentional under-reporting or of a cover-up, but said the numbers may still fluctuate.
In Taiwan, the medical system is under immense strain. More than 140 medical workers at two major hospitals have quit for fear of contracting the deadly virus, after scores of doctors and nurses in a half-dozen hospitals fell ill.
At least six doctors and nurses had died from SARS.
Lee Ming-liang, who leads the cabinet's SARS committee, told reporters the island had a limited time to control SARS.
”The trend of epidemiology is each wave is bigger than the last. If we cannot effectively control the epidemic within five weeks, especially hospital infections, it could be hard to control,” said Lee, a former health minister.
Fearful of the spread of SARS, several Taiwan hospitals set up outdoor tents to treat patients and put people in yellow raincoats before entering.
In remote Kazakhstan, five people have been placed under observation in hospital after travelling on a train with two passengers showing symptoms of the SARS virus, a Kazakh health official said on Tuesday. (Reporting by Alice Hung in Taiwan with additional reporting by Beijing, Hong Kong, Sydney and Almaty bureaus)