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WHO cautious on China SARS claim

An employee in Taiwan undergoes a SARS check.  The WHO was critical of Taiwan's handling of the virus.
An employee in Taiwan undergoes a SARS check. The WHO was critical of Taiwan's handling of the virus.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Though Beijing officials have claimed the SARS outbreak in the Chinese capital is "under control," World Health Organization experts say it is too early to claim the virus has been contained there.

While there are encouraging signs, WHO China official Keiji Fukuda said there are still new cases being reported in Beijing involving people contracting the disease who had no known contact with SARS patients.

The cautious approach from the WHO follows comments from Beijing city officials that "effective measures" taken in recent days were behind a drop in cases in the capital. ('Under control')

Beijing still has 10,000 people in quarantine, down from a peak of 16,000 last week, China's state-run Xinhua news service reported.

Forty-eight new SARS cases were reported in the city on Tuesday, among a total figure of 80 for the mainland -- the first time the number has come down to double figures for some time.

In China there are now 5,086 SARS cases, over 2,400 suspected cases and a total of 262 deaths.

Worldwide, over 7,540 cases and 573 deaths have been recorded, according to WHO figures.

The WHO was also critical of Taiwan on Tuesday where the number of cases has risen dramatically in the past week.

The number of SARS cases on the island shot up by 23 Tuesday, climbing to 207, with 24 deaths, the latest WHO figures indicate.

"By and large, everybody has now learned how to control their hospital environment, but mistakes are possibly still happening in Taiwan," WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said.

Nigerian death

Also cause for concern was the reporting of the first suspected SARS death in Africa. Nigerian authorities are on alert after the death of a visiting Taiwan businessman.

Though SARS is suspected, it has not been confirmed as the cause of the death.

Health officials in Nigeria have begun screening visitors for signs of SARS after the man, who died February 28, had been in contact with about 30 Nigerians in Kano and Lagos, the country's largest city.

All were placed under surveillance, and six developed "flu-like symptoms" but fully recovered, Nigerian Health Minister Alphonsus Nwosu told The Associated Press.

With a population of more than 126 million, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. Experts fear the world's poorest continent -- with dire health care and millions weakened by AIDS -- would be unable to cope with SARS.

According to the WHO, South Africa has been the only nation on the continent to have a SARS case. The sole patient is now listed as recovered by the WHO.

Out of work migrant workers pass their time waiting at a Beijing railway station in Beijing.
Out of work migrant workers pass their time waiting at a Beijing railway station in Beijing.

In other developments:

• The WHO says it is too early to lift a travel advisory against Hong Kong despite a fall in infections there. WHO spokesperson Christine McNab said the number of patients in hospital needed to be reduced first. "There are three areas we look at," she said on Hong Kong radio station RTHK Wednesday. "One is the number of cases, the second is the amount of local transmission, the third is the record of exporting of cases." Hong Kong reported seven deaths and six new cases on Tuesday. Over 370 people are still hospitalized.

• Greece reported its first suspected SARS case Tuesday, saying the possible victim was a female flight attendant who traveled directly to Athens from Hong Kong. Experts were working to determine if she had contracted SARS.

• German Chancellor Gerrhard Schroeder underwent health checks upon arrival at Singapore's Changi airport on the first stop of a southeast Asian tour. Schroeder was praised by Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Goh said Schroeder's visit, which went against the advise of many of his German collegues, was "especially important given the SARS situation."

• Researchers in Germany say they have tentatively determined the structure of a protein used by the SARS virus to infect cells. The research, published this week in the Science journal, indicates an experimental drug used to treat the common cold could be modified to combat SARS.

• Beijing has raised strong objections to international support for Taiwan's bid to join the WHO as an observer. China allowed a team of WHO experts to visit the self-ruled island to assist in its battle against a worsening SARS outbreak there. (Full story)

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