Mass SARS quarantine in Beijing
BEIJING, China -- China has told 4,000 Beijing residents to go home and stay there indefinitely as the capital clambers to contain the deadly SARS virus.
People who have had "intimate contact" with others showing SARS symptoms have been quarantined, a Beijing health official said Friday.
The move came two days after Beijing invoked emergency powers to quarantine people, and follows in the wake of two hospitals being sealed and schools being shut down for two weeks. The measures have been fueling panic buying among residents in this city of 14 million people.
City officials said they expect the behavior to subside because there is a sufficient supply of food and goods to meet the public's needs.
Rumors that authorities are planning to declare martial law in Beijing or close the city's airports and highways have circulated on the Internet and over mobile phones. A city government spokesman dismissed them as "rumors spread by people with ulterior motives."
A third hospital was sealed on Friday, according to Associated Press. The closure of the Ditan Hospital in northern Beijing came less than two weeks after reporters were allowed to tour the facility, touted then as a showcase of the government's SARS preparedness.
It wasn't immediately clear how many patients and staff were in the hospital, which has 500 beds and 643 staff.
At least 42 people in the capital have died of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and 115 people have died across China since officials began tracking the disease. Five new deaths were reported on Friday.
An additional 180 new cases were added to China's soaring tally of sufferers, with the nation's official SARS count standing at 2,601. More than 750 of those cases are in Beijing alone.
The increasingly urgent steps in China come as the mortality rate creeps up in neighboring Hong Kong.
Officials in the former British colony -- the hardest-hit area along with mainland China -- on Thursday revised the death rate from SARS to 7.2 percent from 5 percent.
Some experts say it could rise higher because the rate is calculated by including those patients still being treated in hospital.
While 614 people out of 1,510 have recovered in the territory of 6.7 million people, 105 are still in intensive care. Hong Kong reported six more deaths on Friday, bringing its toll to 115.
Beyond Hong Kong, experts are unable to explain why SARS seems more virulent, with the global mortality rate creeping up to 5.9 percent from less than 4 percent three weeks ago.
Worldwide, there are now over 4,000 cases, and more than 250 people have died from the virus, a respiratory infection caused by a relative of a common cold virus.
One suggestion is the coronavirus that causes the disease could have mutated into a more virulent form, but Dr. Julie Hall from the WHO said there was no evidence this has happened.
In the past week, people in their 30s and 40s with no history of illness have been dying from SARS in Hong Kong. Doctors are treating patients with a cocktail of antivirals and steroids, but as yet there is no cure.
Some experts have expressed concern that along with hitting the respiratory system, the virus may be striking the intestines.
In Singapore, Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang told The Associated Press 8 to 9 percent of the island's SARS patients are dying.
The city-state, which reported two new deaths on Thursday, is refurbishing a drug rehabilitation camp to hold anyone who violates a harsh order to stay under home quarantine.
Meanwhile, in a rare display of discord between health agencies, the director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control disagreed with the WHO's recommendation that all non-essential travel to Toronto be delayed until the SARS outbreak there has abated.
The WHO has refused to downgrade its travel warning to Toronto, even though Canadian officials have lambasted the warning as ridiculous. (Full story)
While Toronto has far fewer cases than China and only 16 deaths, Canada has reported more SARS cases than any other country outside the Asian region.
The WHO says Canada had exported SARS to other countries, including America, Australia and the Philippines and will only lower the alert if no new cases have occurred in a three week period.
In other developments:
• Talks have opened in Malaysia on ways to halt the virus. Senior officials from Southeast Asian countries are attending, along with representatives from China, Hong Kong and the WHO.
• Health officials in the Philippines say the country has had its first two deaths from SARS, and another two people are infected. The numbers are not included in the latest WHO tally.
• Reports in Britain say insurers are withdrawing cover for travel to some countries hit by SARS.
• Authorities in Taiwan have quarantined over 1,000 doctors, nurses and patients in a hospital to halt the spread of the deadly flu-like disease, according to Reuters.