China issues SARS travel appeal
BEIJING, China -- China is appealing for its citizens to cancel holidays and other travel plans as fears grow of travelers spreading the SARS virus to the country's poorer inland provinces.
The appeal came as Chinese health officials reported another big rise in cases of the virus with 157 new infections and at least another five deaths.
Neighboring Hong Kong also reported five new SARS deaths Tuesday although officials say they are hopeful that efforts to contain the disease might be beginning to pay off.
Tuesday also saw 32 new confirmed cases of the disease in the territory -- higher than the previous days, which had seen a slight downward trend in new infections.
Experts have said the decline in new cases is encouraging, but warn that Hong Kong will need to record a sustained drop extending for several weeks before efforts to contain the virus could be said to be having an effect.
On top of that the territory's geographical proximity to mainland China, where the disease originated, could complicate matters.
"You really have to look at trends -- the daily figure or two days or three days doesn't really mean anything," Malik Peiris, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong told the Associated Press.
China has already announced it is slashing the upcoming May Day "Golden Week" holiday from seven days to just three days to discourage people from traveling.
Officials are worried that with cases of SARS growing significantly in Beijing and other big cities, the virus could spread to poorer rural provinces whose health facilities are poorly equipped to cope with a major outbreak.
Although it was only introduced in 1999 the May holiday has become one of China's most popular with tens of millions of people on the move.
Travel agents and hotels are already reporting huge numbers of cancellations, saying they stand to lose millions of dollars in business.
Nonetheless, China's leaders have been stung by international criticism that they covered-up the spread of the disease and say such tough measures are essential to both contain the virus and repair the country's image.
At the weekend two top officials -- the country's health minister and the mayor of Beijing -- were sacked from their posts; the first official heads to roll over China's handling of the outbreak.
China's leaders have pledged full cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) and say any further officials found to be covering-up SARS cases will be severely punished.
On Tuesday state media quoted Communist Party boss Liu Qi as telling officials to intensify efforts to trace people exposed to confirmed SARS cases and report promptly and accurately on the disease.
"Do a good job of analyzing statistics, effectively control and cut off the source of infection," he was quoted as saying.
WHO officials have warned that a failure to keep tabs on those people exposed to the virus could see cases of SARS soar across China.
In a statement on its Web site the WHO said the weekend's sacking of the two officials showed that China was "now taking seriously the need for transparency in SARS reporting."
Both men, the statement said, had "played down the seriousness of SARS."
The SARS virus first emerged in southern China's Guangdong province last November and has since spread to other parts of the country, into neighboring Hong Kong and more than 20 other countries around the world.
Health experts say just a few infected travelers have been responsible for spreading the virus to new areas -- hence concerns about the prospect for the May holiday dramatically increasing the spread of the virus.
In total at least 234 people around the world have died from the SARS virus, according to WHO figures, with more than 4,100 cases of infection.
However, the WHO says that of those infected slightly less than half have since recovered and been discharged from medical care.
In other developments:
• Secondary school students in Hong Kong have resumed their studies after schools across the territory were closed for three weeks as part of efforts to contain the spread of SARS. Facemasks will be mandatory for all pupils and parents have been asked to make daily temperature checks to monitor for signs of fever -- one of the main symptoms of SARS. Primary schools remain closed.
• Singapore's Ministry of Health has closed a leading wholesale vegetable market and quarantined all 2,500 employees because of concerns they may have been exposed to the virus that causes SARS.
• Malaysia has reported what officials say is the country's second probable death from SARS -- a 26-year-old tour operator who fell ill after visiting China.
• Japan says it is monitoring two possible cases of SARS although the country has yet to have any confirmed cases of the virus despite close business and travel ties with China.