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China Issues Stern Warning to Those Spreading SARS

China says it will shoot or jail people who break out of quarantine and intentionally spread the deadly SARS virus. The stern warning comes as the government also promises to rebuild its creaking rural health care system.

China's top legal officials say execution or life in prison is an appropriate punishment for someone who flees quarantine and deliberately spreads the SARS virus. The official Xinhua news agency calls Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome a threat to public security that kills and injures people and causes major economic damage.

Tens of thousands of Chinese people have been put in quarantine because they might have been exposed to the disease. News accounts say a few have run away from out of fear of the disease, which kills at least one of every 20 people it infects.

The legal warnings are part of China's tough new anti-SARS policy, which has seen hundreds of officials fired for bungling the fight against the disease.

SARS was first reported in southern China late last year. Since then, it has sickened more than five thousand people, and killed more than 270 in the country. Until now, SARS has been mostly an urban problem in China, but worried officials say the country's decrepit rural health-care system means hundreds of millions of people are vulnerable to the virus.

China once bragged of an extensive rural health network that relied on "barefoot doctors," to bring health care to the countryside. Economic reforms over the past 20 years ended the communes that supported the health-care system, leaving most rural residents without adequate care.

The head of rural anti-SARS efforts, Liu Jian, says the government is going to put at least $240 million into rebuilding the rural health care system. Mr. Liu says the government will fight SARS by transferring doctors and health care workers from cities and the military to rural areas where they are badly needed right now.

China is also encouraging millions of migrant workers in the cities to avoid returning to their rural homes, for fear they will spread the virus. Mr. Liu says so far, such measures are working, and only six percent of SARS victims are rural residents.