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Beijing SARS Outbreak 'Remains Grave'; U.S. Offers More Help

May 07, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

As the SARS outbreak in Beijing continued to grow, U.S. health officials on Tuesday reached an agreement with China to provide additional scientific assistance to contain the outbreak, as well as future ones.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the assistance would include more U.S. personnel, epidemiological training, improvements in laboratory capacity and improved health information technology. The agreement did not specify how much money would be committed.

"The SARS epidemic has made clear that every serious infectious disease today is a potential issue of global importance," Thompson said.

The possibility that other diseases could emerge from China increases the importance of adequate monitoring there, he added.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, head of the World Health Organization, cautioned that the epidemic had not yet peaked in China and that "there is obviously an increase in the outbreak going on."

But she added that she believes health authorities still have a chance to eradicate the virus. "We have a window of opportunity," she said. "We can still contain the first new disease of this century and make it go away."

In other developments, the United States rescinded its travel alert for Singapore on Tuesday, noting that the country had gone for more than 20 days without reporting a new case of severe acute respiratory syndrome. And a meeting of health ministers of the European Union considered requiring medical exams for people arriving on flights from SARS-affected areas, but decided instead to continue the current policy of requiring only a written questionnaire from travelers.

As of Tuesday, WHO reported a total of 6,727 cases of SARS worldwide and 478 deaths. Of the 153 new cases, 138 were in China, with an additional nine in Hong Kong. China reported eight new deaths and Hong Kong six. There have now been at least 4,418 SARS cases in China and 214 deaths.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Wednesday that the outbreak in Beijing, the hardest-hit Chinese city, "still remains grave."

At least three riots have broken out in small Chinese cities and villages this week, prompted largely by the return of migrant workers who might be infected by the virus. Many of those workers have been placed in quarantine, but village residents have complained bitterly about the quarantines occurring in their neighborhoods.

In an effort to assuage some of the concern, Wen promised free SARS care for all of those affected. The government will "provide free medical treatment to all peasant sufferers," he told a meeting of China's Cabinet, including screening, hospitalization and food.

The difficulties China faces in containing the SARS epidemic are illustrated by the story of one powerful official, as told by the state-owned newspaper.

Jin Guohua, an executive of a state-owned publishing house, Xinhua Bookstores, was accused last Wednesday of lying to doctors and breaking quarantine. As a result of his actions, officials in the provincial capital of Nanjing quarantined 10,000 people and took other measures to control the spread of the disease.

Jin, based in Jiangsu, traveled to Beijing in early April, but refused to observe a voluntary quarantine on his return and began a series of other trips. By April 25, he had developed a cough and visited a military hospital, but he did not tell doctors of his trip to Beijing. By the time it became obvious that he had SARS, he had come into close contact with 400 people in four cities, according to the state-owned newspaper.

The United States reported four new probable SARS cases Tuesday, bringing the total here to 65. That is an increase from 40 about two weeks ago. Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that almost all of the new cases were travelers from Canada.

But Gerberding said it was unlikely that any of the new cases actually are SARS. The cases were reported because the travelers were returning from a SARS-affected area, but there have been no new cases of SARS outside hospitals in Toronto, so the travelers were not likely to be exposed to the virus.

Gerberding said that the outbreak has been contained in Singapore, but that the situation in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong "is sobering."

"There are tens of thousands of people under quarantine in China, and they are working extremely aggressively using all the tools that we would recommend if we were in that situation," she said.

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