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China Reports More SARS Deaths, Allows WHO Visit - 2003-04-02

China's government has revealed a dozen more deaths from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, mostly in the southern Chinese province thought to have spawned the flu-like illness. The deaths boost the global toll for the fast-spreading disease to more than 60. Beijing is finally allowing United Nations disease experts to visit the South.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, is thought to have originated in China's Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong.

The new information from Guangdong and three other southern provinces boosts the number of acknowledged deaths in mainland China to 46 - more than half of the global total. Chinese officials say there were also hundreds of new infections in Guangdong during March, plus a number of cases in Guangxi, Hunan and Sichuan Provinces.

Doctors say the number of deaths and new cases in Guangdong is down from the previous month, something World Health Organization disease expert Robert Breiman called good news.

Dr. Breiman is to lead a team of WHO disease control experts to Guangdong on Thursday, where he hopes to discover things that will help doctors around the world predict the course of the disease, and do a better job of fighting it.

"I do not think this problem has peaked internationally," admitted Dr. Breiman. "One of the reasons that people have been so interested in China is that it does appear that it is possible, at least in Guangdong that the problem has peaked. If that's true, and we think that it is, then there is a lot to learn here."

Team members want to study the biology of the virus that causes the disease, which WHO scientists say may be mutating to a less contagious form. They also want to know if other viruses or diseases might play a role in worsening SARS or speeding its spread. They say they can learn useful lessons by seeing patients and talking to the doctors who have had the most clinical experience fighting the new disease.

The WHO team has been in Beijing for days trying to obtain permission to begin its investigation in Guangdong.

Beijing promised days ago to give daily, province-by-province updates on the disease, but until now its reporting has been slow and very sketchy. The WHO team quoted Chinese officials as saying that complete reporting would begin sometime soon.

The incomplete reports have prompted strong criticism from medical experts outside China, and deep concerns inside the country, as public events have been cancelled and some schools closed. Residents of Guangdong have been quoted as saying they are receiving no information from their government, which has worsened their fears.

The briefing in Beijing was held as the WHO's main office in Switzerland issued a world-wide advisory against travel to Guangdong Province, and to Hong Kong, where the disease has also struck several hundred people.