Finnish man in Beijing dies of mystery respiratory illness

He may be first foreigner in China to fall victim

April 07, 2003|By Michael A. Lev | Michael A. Lev,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEIJING - A Finnish man died of SARS here yesterday, becoming the first known foreigner to succumb to the disease in China, government officials said at an unusually frank news conference.

After suppressing and delaying the release of information about the deadly mystery virus as it has spread from China around the world, officials acted quickly to announce the man's death. They insisted it represented an isolated case of severe acute respiratory syndrome that was brought into China rather than part of a new outbreak in Beijing.

Pekka Aro, 53, worked for the Geneva-based International Labor Organization and became ill March 28 after traveling to Beijing from Bangkok five days earlier.

His death was one of five in China reported yesterday, bringing the nation's death toll to 52. There have been more than 2,300 cases of SARS worldwide, including at least 98 fatalities. About half of all known cases are from China.

Investigators from the World Health Organization believe the SARS epidemic began in the southern province of Guangdong in November and may have peaked in China but not elsewhere in the world. The new cases in China, regardless of where they originated, highlight the ease with which the disease can be transmitted by air travelers.

The concern about China is not just that it has been at the center of the epidemic but that the government has been slow to cooperate with the WHO investigation, dragging its feet about disclosing the number of cases and instituting a media blackout during the weeks that SARS first spread through Hong Kong.

By not appearing completely forthcoming, fears have arisen that China may be holding back on the extent of the outbreak. In Beijing, for example, the government said yesterday that the number of SARS cases rose from 12 to 19, but several doctors and Western observers said they assume the total is probably in the dozens.

With tourists and business travelers canceling visits to China, the government has appeared to feel the pressure and has started releasing case updates more frequently while insisting that the virus is under control and China poses no danger to foreigners.

Qi Xiaoqiu, director general of the Health Ministry's department of disease control, said that it was "guaranteed" safe to travel in China.

Officials have said Beijing is not dangerous because all the known SARS victims here have been traced to cases originating elsewhere. One Canadian is said to have contracted SARS in China, but there was no information on the case.

Health officials said they believed Aro contracted SARS before arriving in China and were monitoring fellow passengers on the Bangkok-Beijing flight. One doctor said Aro had been traveling in Asia for several weeks but was based in Finland.

"According to information we have acquired, he had a history of contact with suspected SARS cases before entering China," Liu Zejun, director of Beijing's health bureau, told a news conference.

Doctors are thought to have examined and isolated Aro's colleagues while disinfecting their homes. The conference Aro was to attend in Beijing - the China Employment Forum today through Wednesday - has been postponed.

The health-care system in Beijing has mobilized to watch for more cases of SARS, creating wards in several hospitals to treat patients under quarantine. At other hospitals, emergency room personnel are equipped to examine suspected patients and transport them to one of the specialty hospitals.

Michael A. Lev is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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