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WHO broadens Taiwan SARS travel warning

Taiwanese students are wearing SARS-protective masks, which have been a part of daily life for more than a month now.
Taiwanese students are wearing SARS-protective masks, which have been a part of daily life for more than a month now.

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TAIPEI, Taiwan (CNN) -- The World Health Organization broadened its advisory against travel to all of Taiwan as the island struggles to cope with the fastest-growing outbreak of the SARS virus in the world.

The WHO on May 8 warned travelers to defer trips to the Taiwanese capital of Taipei but extended its caution Wednesday to include all of the island.

Other parts of Asia as well as Canada appear to be making headway in the fight against SARS, but the same cannot be said of Taiwan, where the number of new SARS cases has been climbing.

On Wednesday, Taipei reported 35 new SARS cases, a slight drop from a record rise of 39 Tuesday, but it brought the island's confirmed cases to 418. So far 52 people have died.

With severe acute respiratory syndrome showing signs of ebbing in many parts of Asia, all eyes have shifted to Taiwan, which has the third-highest count after mainland China and Hong Kong.

Even more troubling, health officials said, is the jump in the number of people with SARS-like symptoms.

Health officials are working off a backlog of more than 474 SARS-related cases in which people show symptoms but have not been confirmed with the flulike virus. The cases are listed as pending and are yet to be determined as SARS infections.

This means the total number of cases could yet rise dramatically.

Last week, Taiwan's Minister of Health Twu Shiing-jer quit over criticism of the way authorities had handled the outbreak.

Sources close to the battle said Taiwan is at a crossroads, with officials saying their efforts are being hampered because they are not part of WHO. (WHO rebuffs Taiwan)

In Taiwan's hospitals -- where more than 90 percent of the cases have struck -- many doctors and nurses already are ill or in quarantine, and more than 100 have quit their jobs.

Unless officials move quickly to contain the outbreak in hospitals and do a more effective job of tracing contacts, the epidemic risks taking a turn for the worse with potentially serious consequences for the health care-system, sources said.

In a bout of good news for the region, WHO has taken the Philippines off its travel advisory list after the Southeast Asian nation recorded no new SARS cases for 20 days.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Senate committee is looking at how state and local governments are dealing with the disease. Testimony is expected Wednesday from a number of health officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

Worldwide, WHO reports more than 7,900 SARS cases and 662 deaths.

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