China cancels holiday over SARS
China admits jump in SARS cases - tenfold in Beijing
BEIJING, China (CNN) -- China's government announced that it was canceling one of the country's biggest national holidays -- the week-long May 1 International Workers' Day holiday -- in an effort to prevent the SARS virus being spread further around the country.
China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing were also both sacked from their jobs after officials announced a dramatic increase in cases of the deadly disease in the country, state media reported.
The official Xinhua news agency gave no reason for the top officials' sackings, but speculation has been growing in recent days that minister Zhang Wenkang and Mayor Meng Xuenong might be forced from office over their handling of the outbreak.
Also Sunday the health ministry in Beijing raised the number of confirmed SARS cases in the country significantly, saying there were 402 suspected infections in Beijing alone and 12 new deaths.
In total the number of confirmed SARS cases in the Chinese capital soared from an official tally of 37 to 339 as of Friday, the latest date numbers are available, health officials told reporters.
The announcement came after weeks of criticism aimed at Chinese authorities, with many medical experts accusing officials of trying to cover up the true extent of the outbreak.
On Saturday Chinese President Hu Jintao demanded local health officials provide "accurate, timely, and honest reporting about the disease," according to state-run media reports.
He said any official caught trying to cover up the spread of the virus would face severe punishment.
Keen to show they are taking the outbreak seriously, health officials said Sunday they would spend whatever was needed to contain the virus -- including cancelling the week-long May 1 International Workers' Day holiday.
"The purpose of such an act is to prevent the massive movement of people and the possible spread of the disease," Gao Qiang, an executive vice health minister told reporters at a press briefing.
He added that the cancellation would likely deal a blow to China's economy, but he said, "people's lives and health had to be put above everything."
Gao also said the government would subsidize the cost of treating SARS patients and pledged the government would provide a daily update on cases rather than announcements every five days.
He said poor communication and confusing data-reporting methods among hospitals, including military institutions, had contributed to the problem.
"The government will not tolerate any delay in reporting, any underreporting or cover-up of SARS figures. This is going to be a rule," Gao added.
The new deaths announced Sunday push China's officially reported SARS toll to 79 deaths, 18 of which were in Beijing the health ministry said.
Hong Kong battered
The announcement of the new cases on the Chinese was followed later Sunday by the latest daily briefing from officials in Hong Kong, where seven new deaths from SARS were reported Sunday.
On top of that a further 22 cases were reported, although at the same time officials were keen to stress that 46 people had been released from medical care following successful treatment.
In all since the outbreak began some 409 patients have been discharged following treatment for SARS in Hong Kong hospitals, with another 168 being transferred to convalescent care, health officials said.
On Saturday Hong Kong reported a significant spike in the number of fatalities with 12 dead, the highest toll for single day.
That news came as a bitter psychological blow for the already battered territory and its economy, just a day after Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa expressed hopes the outbreak would stabilize.
Among those who died on Saturday, five had no previous medical conditions and were regarded as otherwise relatively young, fit and healthy.
Hong Kong remains the worst hit SARS-infected area in the world -- with a death toll higher even than that officially reported in mainland China where the virus is thought to have originated.
Cases of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, have been reported in more than 20 countries and territories around the world.
On Saturday, before the announcement of 12 further deaths in China, the World Health Organization (WHO) put the global death toll from the virus at more than 182.
Although that number is still relatively low on a global scale, experts say the worrying factor is that very little is known about the virus, how to prevent it and how to treat it.
In total, the WHO said Saturday, there had been more than 3,500 cases of SARS infection around the world, although about half of those have since recovered and been discharged from medical care.
In other developments:
• Workers wearing masks and protective clothing have begun a thorough clean-up at one of Singapore's largest wholesale vegetable markets after an outbreak of SARS among retailers there. The number of cases at the market has raised fears that the virus has moved beyond hospitals and into the community at large.
• A 99-year-old man has become the 14th person to die from SARS in Canada -- the worst hit country outside of Asia. Also the country's largest trauma unit has been isolated and closed to new patients after four staff members there began showing symptoms of the virus.