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Beijing plays down SARS scare

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, CNN Senior China Analyst

SARS is believed to have originated in China's Guangdong province.
SARS is believed to have originated in China's Guangdong province.

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Would the warning from the World Health Organization make you change your travel plans to Hong Kong or China?


HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Beijing has pulled out all the stops to assure foreign businessmen and tourists that it is safe to visit China despite the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Communist party sources in Beijing said the new leadership under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao had urged central and regional officials to issue words of reassurance to the international community.

Despite its upbeat stance, however, China's Ministry of Health announced Monday that the death toll from the virus had risen to 53, with 1,268 people infected.

It was also revealed that people had died of the mysterious illness in more of its provinces than previously reported, according to Reuters.

Party sources said the pneumonia crisis, along with the war in Iraq, could threaten a 7 percent growth rate the government pledged earlier this year.

A number of international conferences scheduled to be held in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities have been canceled or postponed, and tourism bookings have also been reduced.

The government is trying to persuade other nations, including the United States, to stop issuing advisories asking nationals to avoid visiting China because of the SARS epidemic, the sources said.

Most official papers on Monday covered a high-profile visit by Premier Wen to the China Disease Control Center.

Wen said the disease was "under effective control" in China, and that the great majority of provinces and cities had no SARS cases at all.

"The Chinese government and people enthusiastically welcome friends from around the world to come to China for tourism, visits and business activities," the premier said, adding that all measures would be taken to safeguards their health and safety.

CCTV on Monday carried an interview with a senior official in Guangdong, who emphasized that foreign businessmen going to the province had encountered no health problems.

The provincial capital, Guangzhou, is due to open its annual Guangzhou Trade Fair soon, and local cadres are worried about a drop in attendance.

The Guangdong press has reported that central government units will be in charge of anti-epidemic and other health-related work related to the fair.

The official media have also run relatively upbeat assessments by five World Health Organization experts who are currently visiting Guangdong, deemed the "source" of the epidemic.

The official Xinhua news agency quoted head of the expert team, Dr Robert Breiman as saying "the data we've got during the three days of staying here is much more than we expected."

Brieman was also quoted as indicating that the hospitals they had visited in Guangdong had "done a remarkable job and they follow the procedures and techniques that are used by Asian countries to control the virus."

Meanwhile, Chinese officials have been stressing that a number of SARS patients undergoing treatment in China had contracted the disease outside China.

In a press conference held on Sunday, Beijing officials said International Labor Organization expert Pekka Aro, who died in the capital, had contracted SARS before he entered China on March 23.

Aro was in Thailand for six days before his China trip.

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