HK SARS deaths reach new high
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Twelve more people have died from the SARS virus in Hong Kong, the highest number of fatalities in a single day from the disease, health officials say.
The latest figures released Saturday raise the death toll from the disease in the former British colony to 81.
Announcing the toll, health officials said a further 31 cases of infection had been reported -- a number significantly down from the 60s and 70s being reported daily at the beginning of the month.
Liu Shao-Haei, senior executive manager of Hong Kong's Hospital Authority told reporters that seven of the 12 dead were elderly people suffering pre-existing conditions.
However, one of the dead was aged 37 and had no previous medical record.
Several deaths among young and apparently otherwise healthy patients have raised serious concerns among health officials in Hong Kong struggling to contain the disease.
The latest news will be another psychological blow for beleaguered Hong Kong, which has dedicated the Easter holiday weekend to a territory-wide mass clean-up effort.
The government has called on every one of Hong Kong's seven million residents to take part in the clean-up, scrubbing and disinfecting housing blocks, streets, parks, public venues, shops and restaurants.
SARS has hit Hong Kong hard, slashing the once lucrative tourist trade and threatening thousands of businesses with bankruptcy.
The virus is thought to have originated across the border in mainland China's Guangdong province last November.
On Saturday, stung by criticism over their handling of the outbreak, Chinese leaders warned of severe punishments for any officials caught trying to cover up cases of the disease.
Reports in state media quoted Premier Wen Jiabao demanding officials come clean over cases of infection and report data quickly and accurately to central authorities.
"Anyone who covers up SARS cases or delays the release of information will be harshly punished as this matter concerns the people's health and safety," the English-language China Daily quoted Wen as saying.
His comments came a day after TIME magazine reported that Chinese officials had gone to elaborate lengths to hide cases of SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
According to a report in the magazine Friday, dozens of patients were driven around in ambulances while others were moved to hotels during hospital inspection visits by officials from the World Health Organization (WHO). ('Hidden cases')
China's response to the SARS outbreak has been the subject of mounting criticism, with many warning that lack of cooperation with global efforts to control the disease will do lasting damage to the country's reputation.
On Friday WHO officials said they expected China's SARS toll would rise "significantly" in the coming days after top officials agreed to alter the way the government defines patients with symptoms of the virus in line with international standards.
Around the world more than more than 3,400 SARS cases have been reported in 27 countries and territories.
At least 182 people have died of the disease, but about half of those who contracted the virus have since recovered, the WHO says.
Spread of the SARS virus meanwhile continues to cause panic in parts of Asia -- bringing with it rumors of increasingly far-fetched ways of preventing the disease.
On Friday health officials in Hong Kong issued a strongly worded press statement squashing a fast growing rumor that smoking could help prevent the disease. (Rumor squashed)
"Smoking weakens body immunity and increases the chance of infection," a health spokesman said, adding rumors that it could prevent SARS were "totally unfounded."
In other developments:
• Officials in Hong Kong, one of the areas worst hit by SARS, launched a two-day mass clean-up effort across the territory Saturday. The government has called on every one of Hong Kong's seven million residents to take part in the clean-up, scrubbing and disinfecting housing blocks, streets, parks, public venues, shops and restaurants.
• On Friday Hong Kong reported a further four deaths from SARS and 30 new cases. The figures push the death toll in the territory to 69, the highest in the world.
• Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong says city-state's outbreak of SARS could be the worst crisis it has ever faced. Tightening regulations aimed at combating the spread of the disease Goh also announced strict new measures, including fines and jail terms, for anyone who breaks home quarantine orders.
• Vietnam's health authority has proposed closing the northern land border with China in an effort to prevent further SARS cases entering the country, state media reported Saturday.
• Dozens of boarding school pupils arriving back in Britain from Asia have been taken to quarantine camps in case they have the SARS virus. About 150 children have been transferred to two camps where they will be kept isolated from the public for 10 days and subjected to medical tests. (Pupils quarantined)