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Chinese Government to Give Regular Updates on Mysterious Illness

World Health Organization experts say the Chinese government has agreed to start giving regular updates on the spread of a deadly respiratory disease in the country.

Chinese state media have so far reported next to nothing about the mysterious disease, known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

Although the illness appears to have originated in China's southern province, Guangdong, local health authorities only this week began to release information about it. And the data given out were a month old.

The disease causes severe flu-like symptoms that often lead to a potentially lethal pneumonia. It has killed more than 50 people around the world and infected more than 1,400.

On Friday, World Health Organization experts visiting Beijing told reporters the Chinese government has now promised to provide regular updates about the illness's spread.

"What is needed is provincial updates on a daily basis," said Mr. Bekedam, WHO country head for China. "That message we have very clearly given, and we got very positive feedback."

Mr. Bekedam says it is crucial that China improve its surveillance of the potentially deadly illness, and give up-to-date information to prevent the disease from spreading further.

China's Ministry of Health reports that at the end of February, there were 792 SARS cases in Guangdong province, in the south, and 31 deaths. More recently, 10 cases and three deaths have been reported in Beijing, as well as four cases in Shanxi province in the north.

John Mackenzie is with the WHO team investigating the illness in Beijing. He says, now that Chinese health authorities have a clear definition for the disease, more cases are likely to be identified in China.

"From what we know internationally of the disease, we might expect more cases [in China]," he said. "I'm sure that, once the provinces start reporting in, now that it is notifiable, and now there is a case definition, we might well see more cases."

The WHO team has asked to visit Guangdong province to try to find the origin of the disease, but is still waiting for permission to go. The Chinese government often regards public health problems as highly sensitive, and routinely suppresses the release of statistics that are believed to make the country look bad.