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Chinese Leaders Order Better Reporting of SARS Cases - 2003-04-18

Chinese leaders are ordering health officials to improve reporting of severe acute respiratory syndrome cases, while at the same time agreeing to change the way it defines the disease. China has come under criticism for its handling of the mystery illness, which is believed to have started in southern China in November.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, after an emergency meeting of top Communist Party leaders, warned health officials not to cover up any cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS.

The order was carried by China's government-controlled media Friday.

This state television announcer said the government is insisting there must be "no delay and no deceit in reporting."

Earlier, the Chinese government insisted there were only 37 SARS cases in Beijing.

World Health Organization disease experts say that number could be five times higher and many patients have been hidden in military-run hospitals.

But on Friday, China's health minister Zhang Wenkang agreed to change the definition of patients with SARS. The new definition will significantly raise the number of cases in Beijing, according to James Maguire, the head of a WHO team.

"If there are 200 or more than 200, I would not be surprised. I don't think there will be thousands but it will be in the hundreds," he said.

International health experts say that for months, China hid some or all information about the SARS outbreak from its citizens, its doctors, and the rest of the world.

SARS was first reported in the southern province of Guangdong and has spread rapidly around the world, infecting nearly 3400 people and killing at least 165.

China's slow reporting of the public health crisis sparked criticism from health experts and political leaders around the world.

China's handling of the situation has undercut its credibility as it now tries to assure foreign travelers and government officials that China is safe for visitors. The tourism and travel industries are taking a battering as bookings shrivel up.

Other industries are also taking a hit and President Hu says SARS has already had "a significant impact" on China's economy. That economic damage may have motivated China to adopt a more open policy.

Doctors in Beijing have set up a telephone hotline that answers questions from worried residents. This expert is telling a caller SARS symptoms include high fever, dry cough, headache and fatigue.

The hotline is part of a public education effort that urges Chinese to live healthier lifestyles and seek quick medical advise if they develop symptoms.

Some three thousand Beijing residents call this hotline each day seeking medical advise.