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WHO Questions China's Handling of SARS Outbreak - 2003-05-10

The World Health Organization has questioned how efficiently Beijing is dealing with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, while the disease continues to spread in Taiwan.

A WHO spokeswoman says the data Beijing is producing about SARS has what she calls serious "holes." The main problem, she says, is that health officials cannot account for how at least 50 percent of the country's SARS victims contracted the disease.

The WHO says that, without thorough information about where infected people went and whom they made contact with, there is no way to predict how fast SARS may continue to spread. The WHO assessment comes just days after Beijing claimed it was bringing the disease under control.

On Saturday, Chinese officials reported five new deaths and 85 new cases. That brings the country's cumulative total to 116 dead, with 2,227 confirmed cases - the highest in the world. China is ordering rural authorities to be ready to renovate and modernize their hospitals. About 70 percent of China's population lives in rural areas, where hospitals are in dilapidated condition, and which lack the resources for adequate medical care.

Health care experts say that could spell disaster, if SARS breaks out of the urban areas, where it is so far concentrated in China. The worst-hit city is Beijing, the capital, where the government has put nearly 19,000 people under quarantine.

Taiwan continues to have trouble controlling the spread of SARS. On Saturday, the government in Taipei announced four more SARS deaths and 23 new cases, the highest number of new cases for Taiwan in a single day. Taiwan now has a total of 172 confirmed cases. Officials say the virus may have begun spreading in the general population, making it harder to track sources of infection. Taipei's mayor announced that mass transit rail passengers would be required to wear masks starting Sunday. And the U.S. State Department has authorized family members and non-essential employees at U.S. missions to leave the island. By contrast, the situation in Hong Kong continues to improve. Hong Kong authorities on Saturday announced two new deaths and seven new cases. This means the daily number of new cases has been in single digits for a full week.

Governments in the region are continuing to take strong measures in the face of the outbreak. A 14-year-old Hong Kong boy who started a SARS-related panic on April 1, just as the disease was starting to spread, will soon appear in court. The boy posted a false report on the Internet saying Hong Kong had been declared an infected port, setting off a wave of panic-buying in the territory's grocery store.

Singapore has sentenced a 50-year-old man to six months in prison for disobeying a SARS quarantine order. The man repeatedly defied his home quarantine, allegedly even showing off his quarantine papers to customers in a coffee shop. No new cases have been reported in Singapore since April 27.

Globally, SARS has killed more than 500 people, and nearly 7200 have been infected in 30 countries. The disease has taken a harsh toll on East Asian economies, dealing an especially severe blow to the region's tourism and air travel industries.