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China PM Describes SARS Outbreak as Grave - 2003-04-14

China's prime minister says the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is grave, and he is urging stronger measures to combat the disease. It is a big change from Beijing's earlier assurances that the disease was under control.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has urged health-care and government officials to step up scrutiny of passengers on planes, boats, and trains, searching for those with signs of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. He says those infected with SARS must be quarantined.

In a lengthy news report, state television showed Prime Minister Wen and quoted him as saying the disease could hurt China's economy, international image, and social stability. Mr. Wen's comments, made Sunday at a national conference on SARS, mark a major change in China's approach to the disease.

Until recently, the government had ordered Chinese media to ignore or downplay reports about SARS. Officials were dismissive of international concerns about the seriousness of the disease and were slow to allow experts from the World Health Organization to study SARS in China.

Also Monday, a leading Chinese newspaper quoted Beijing's mayor as saying SARS was first seen in the capital on March 1, about a month earlier than officials had previously admitted. The comment appears to confirm claims made last week by a prominent Beijing doctor that officials had covered up reports of the disease to avoid political embarrassment.

The doctor said officials did not want any bad news during the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress in mid-March. He also said Chinese officials have under-reported the number of infections and deaths.

On Monday, officials reported four more SARS deaths and 74 more infections in China. Most of the new cases were in the northern province of Shanxi. The report brings the number of infections in China to nearly 1,400, with 64 deaths

SARS is thought to have first appeared in southern China last November, and then spread to Hong Kong and around the world. The disease has infected more than 3,000 people in more than a dozen nations, killing at least 120.