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New Media Campaign Warns Chinese of SARS Danger - 2003-04-15

After months of hiding evidence that a serious new disease was spreading in the country, China's government has unleashed a media campaign to warn the public about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Even top leaders are taking part in the effort.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has joined in a media blitz aimed at warning people about Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Mr. Hu told doctors and workers at a disease control laboratory that state and party leaders are gravely concerned about the SARS outbreak and saddened by the serious threat to people's lives.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also has appeared on state television, urging greater vigilance against the disease and quarantines for those suspected to having been exposed to SARS.

While state-owned newspapers are offering recipes for herbal tonics to boost the immune system, a government-sponsored telephone hotline tells people that living a healthier lifestyle will help them resist SARS. For example, one expert on the hotline urges people to cut down on smoking and drinking.

All this openness is a dramatic change. Since SARS first appeared in southern China late last year, the government has limited reports about the disease. For months, China denied there was a problem, and never warned international health experts.

In the past two months, however, the disease, which causes severe flu-like symptoms and a potentially deadly form of pneumonia, has spread rapidly around the world.

About 3,200 people in more than 15 countries have contracted SARS, and nearly 150 have died. More than 2,000 of the victims are in China and Hong Kong.

Many countries have warned their citizens to avoid trips to China. As a result, the country's tourism industry has suffered, and many foreign businesses have postponed projects in China.

Jean Pierre Cabistan, who heads the French Center for the Study of Contemporary China in Hong Kong, said President Hu and Prime Minister Wen decided to take strong action when SARS threatened the nation's prestige and economic health. "Clearly, China started to feel the cost of this epidemic in terms of tourism and visits from business people and also from political leaders," said Mr. Cabistan.

Beijing was also acutely embarrassed when some foreign political leaders also canceled visits to China.

Mr. Cabistan says he hopes China's new leaders, who took office just last month, will continue their policy of greater openness. He warns, however, that it is unlikely the new government will quickly change Beijing's traditional secretive approach to politics and public health.