SARS is easing in China, nation's officials declare

Health minister gives rare TV interview, ending Beijing's silence on virus

April 03, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Breaking their long silence about the outbreak of the respiratory virus known as SARS, Chinese health officials insisted yesterday that they were taking the problem seriously and that the suspected virus was on the decline in China, home to more than half the world's known cases.

"We are very confident about keeping this disease under control," the minister of health, Zhang Wenkang, said in a rare interview on the nightly news show of state-run television.

Zhang described the flu-like symptoms of the disease and urged the public not to make "close contact" with infected patients - the ministry's broadest public health warning since the first cases were identified in southern China in November.

The health ministry announced the identification of 384 additional cases of SARS and 12 more deaths, for a total of 1,190 cases and 46 dead since November. After nearly a week's delay, the ministry also gave permission yesterday to a visiting team of World Health Organization doctors to travel south to Guangdong province, the location of all but 37 of the officially reported cases in China.

"We are very eager to look at the evolution of the outbreak of the virus," said James H. Maguire, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist who is part of the WHO team set to visit Guangdong as early as today.

The earliest symptoms of SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome - include a fever above 100.4, which might be accompanied by chills, headache and overall discomfort. After a few days, victims develop a dry cough and shortness of breath.

The WHO doctors said they are particularly interested in the reported decline in new cases in Guangdong, which contrasts sharply with the situation in neighboring Hong Kong. The 361 new cases reported in Guangdong last month represented an almost 50 percent drop from February's figure.

"There's a great deal of hope that if the disease rates are really decreasing ... there may be some clues as to how that relates to disease transmission in other countries," epidemiologist Robert F. Breiman said at a WHO news conference here.

"I don't think that this problem has peaked internationally," he cautioned. "It's possible that at least in Guangdong the problem has peaked."

U.S. health officials reported yesterday that they have a test to determine whether coughing, feverish patients have the illness. The new antibody test isn't yet reliable enough to be given to doctors, but it is being used to help state health departments sort out whether they have seen cases of SARS. In China, the television appearance of the health minister, to be followed today by Zhang's holding a news conference, shows that Chinese leaders are concerned about the potential impact of the outbreak on the country's economy and reputation.

Zhang's TV interview "sends a very clear public signal to everyone working health or public health that they don't ignore this disease," said Christopher Powell, spokesman for the WHO team in China. "That's the power of the minister going on television. And that's a very calculated step, and I don't think that was taken by the minister; I think that was taken by people at the highest levels."

It's unclear whether the government has disclosed all of the known SARS cases. In Beijing and Shanghai, cities with a combined population of 30 million, only 12 cases and three deaths have been reported by the health ministry - all in Beijing. A 13th case, in Shanghai, has yet to be conclusively diagnosed.

"There are probably more cases out there," said a foreign health representative in Beijing. "I don't think you're going to wake up some morning and find out that there's 6,000 cases. But there may be more cases."

Until yesterday, the few public comments made by government officials were clearly aimed at reassuring the world that China remained a safe place to visit and do business in. But the reassurances were unconvincing.

For example, a number of international conferences scheduled to take place in China have been canceled, and WHO officials in Geneva yesterday advised travelers to consider postponing trips to Hong Kong and Guangdong. An editorial Monday in the Asian Wall Street Journal ran under the headline, "Quarantine China," and foreign media accounts have characterized China as slow to confront the issue. Officials here apparently began to take note.

"The situation here is safe," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Tuesday, fielding questions from reporters who have not received responses from the health ministry. "The Chinese government has not covered up this disease. There is no need for us to cover up. We don't want to see anybody make use of the SARS issue to sully China's reputation."

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