Beijing closes public places over SARS
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- City authorities Sunday ordered the temporary closure of public places such as cinemas and libraries and suspended the approval of marriages as part of stepped-up efforts to stem the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
So far, mainland China leads the world in SARS cases, with 2,753, according to the World Health Organization on its Web site. Numbers are posted there through Friday.
Saturday, the Chinese Ministry of Health reported an increase in cases for the mainland -- 2,914 -- and 131 deaths. In Beijing, there were 126 new cases, for a total of 1,114, the ministry reported. There have been 56 deaths. Of the 1,114 confirmed cases, 187 are medical workers, officials said.
Beijing officials are setting aside a 98-acre area in the city suburbs for quarantine use.
Last week, Beijing decreed it would quarantine people or public places suspected of SARS infection, invoking emergency powers. The measures prompted panic buying and hoarding in some areas among people who fear food shortages or forced quarantine.
Sunday morning, traffic was light, and a local Catholic cathedral had canceled Sunday Masses. Many have taken to riding bicycles through the city in lieu of public transport so as to avoid contact with others.
Health ministers from several Asian nations held a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Saturday to discuss ways to stem the global outbreak.
"SARS has already started to impact adversely on our economies," said Chua Jui Meng, Malaysia's health minister. "At the same time, fears arising from the uncertainties of the disease are jeopardizing the tranquility of all our societies."
Vietnam, another Asian country hard-hit by SARS, may in fact be removed from the WHO's list of countries affected by the disease if it reaches the end of the month without a new case. No new cases of SARS have been detected in the country since April 8, WHO said, and April 30 would mark two incubation periods with no new case. (Full story)
Amid an outcry from Canadian officials over WHO's travel advisory for Toronto, the agency confirmed Saturday it will review whether to rescind it.
That would appease local authorities who said the advisory has crushed the tourist industry and did not give Canada enough credit for its sophisticated public health infrastructure. (Full story)
The spread in Toronto also led at least four major cruise lines to ask passengers who have recently visited the city to undergo medical screenings before boarding the ships.
As of Saturday, there were 4,836 cases of SARS worldwide, with 293 deaths, according to WHO figures.
Large wedding parties discouraged
In Beijing, meanwhile, the disease is putting a heavy strain on hospitals, with at least three city medical centers sealed off because of SARS infections, officials said.
In addition to the shutdown of theaters, karaoke bars, Internet cafes, and public libraries, Beijing suspended the approval of marriages so as to discourage large wedding parties.
The measures were some of the immediate effects of Saturday's vote by the National People's Congress to replace the Chinese health minister with Vice Premier Wu Yi, who is seen as a tough administrator and negotiator.
She replaced Zhang Wenkang, who was dismissed from his Communist Party post last week amid criticism that he failed to respond quickly enough to the rapid spread of SARS and that he underreported the number of cases.
Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong was also dismissed.
Wu has vowed that the Chinese government will spend $420 million to establish a nationwide health network to battle SARS and other infectious diseases.
The government has also allocated $240 million for emergency medical treatment for SARS patients who can't pay for services.
China was the first country in which SARS appeared; an outbreak began in Guangdong Province last November. The second country affected was Vietnam.
WHO staff credited the quick response of Vietnam's public health community and its government for halting the disease's spread.
"The government showed strong commitment at the highest level from the beginning of the outbreak," the statement said. "Task forces and provincial teams were established and have worked well. Good procedures of infection control were rapidly established and eventually proved effective in preventing further spread among hospital staff."
WHO's removal of Vietnam from the list of SARS-affected countries would be a boon for its tourism industry, which has suffered in Canada because of the outbreak there.
WHO's advisory urges all but essential travel to Toronto be delayed until the SARS outbreak has abated. Its issue Wednesday sparked furor among Canadian political and health officials, who said it was an overreaction to a disease that is largely contained.
Ontario has been traced as the source of SARS cases in the United States, Australia and the Philippines, and the WHO is investigating a possible case spread to Bulgaria.
Saturday, four major U.S. cruise lines announced they would mandate medical screening for passengers who have traveled to Toronto before they may board.
Royal Caribbean Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises had already denied boarding to anyone who has been in or traveled through mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore or Vietnam because of the disease.
And while they will not automatically deny boarding for guests who have been to Toronto, they are requiring them to be screened.
"We talk to them as they check in," said Disney spokesman Mark Jaronski. The nurse will then ask them questions about their travel to the Canadian city.
SARS appears to spread primarily through close person-to-person contact, the CDC says. Most cases have involved people who cared for or lived with someone with SARS, or had direct contact with infectious material from an infected person.
As a result, closed-in areas such as subways, buses, airplanes and cruise ships have come under special scrutiny as officials work to stem the disease's spread.
In general, SARS begins with a fever of at least 100.4 Fahrenheit degrees (38 Celsius). Other symptoms may include headache, an overall feeling of discomfort, body aches, and mild respiratory symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After two to seven days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough and have trouble breathing, the CDC says.
Approximately 94 percent of people with SARS recover from it.