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China Begins to Acknowledge Scope of SARS Infection - 2003-03-27

Months after a severe form of pnuemonia first appeared in southern China, officials in Beijing are just now beginning to admit how far the disease has spread. News media in the country have been quiet about the outbreak.

Health experts say Chinese officials tried to hide the spread of the disease for months, because health statistics are often considered politically sensitive and not publicly released.

In recent weeks, world health officials have increasingly pressed China to improve cooperation and statistical reporting on what is called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. Beijing began providing data on SARS to the World Health Organization about two weeks ago. On Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said China is firmly controlling the spread of SARS.

Mr. Kong says that although the number of reported cases has increased, there have been no new cases found since March 11.

The mysterious disease first appeared in southern China late last year. Chinese news media, however, have downplayed reports on the disease. Some local Beijing newspapers are carrying brief reports on back pages. But state-run television has not mentioned the disease. On Wednesday, officials admitted there had been a total of 792 SARS cases in China and 34 deaths, as of the end of February. Medical personnel say the number of new cases dropped dramatically this month.

There have been almost 1,400 SARS cases worldwide, including more than 50 deaths. Victims of the disease suffer flu-like symptoms that often progress to severe pneumonia. In China, most cases were found in the south, although a handful have been found in Beijing and in Shanxi, an inland province.

Citing a report from the Beijing health bureau, Mr. Kong says victims of the eight cases in the capital were either from Hong Kong or from Shanxi. The ministry of health has not released more recent data and World Health Organization officials in Beijing say they have not been given statistics concerning the disease in other provinces, despite repeated requests.