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WHO Voices Doubts on Decline in China SARS Cases - 2003-06-03

The World Health Organization says it has doubts concerning the number of new cases of SARS being reported by China, particularly in the capital Beijing. The agency says the figures being cited by Chinese authorities appear to be suspiciously low.

Officials at the World Health Organization say there has been a sharp drop in the reported number of new SARS cases in China.

WHO spokesman Iain Simpson, says the week before last, China was reporting an average of 30 new cases every day. He says those figures went down to virtually nothing last week.

But Mr. Simpson says the WHO has so many uncertainties about how China is compiling its statistics that it is unable to state flatly that SARS is declining in China.

"We do not know enough about how China is counting its numbers," he conceded. "We do not know enough about where these numbers are coming from. We have people in Beijing who are working flat out trying to find out more. But, it is not simple. It may simply be that there has been a dramatic drop-off in SARS cases. But clearly, because of the way that SARS emerged in China, China has a credibility problem on SARS. We are working with them to try and better understand this. So if indeed this is good news, that this is credited as good news rather than treated with suspicion," said Mr. Simpson.

The first known case of SARS occurred in November in the Chinese province of Guangdong. However, Chinese authorities did not inform the World Health Organization of the outbreak until mid-February.

By the time WHO officials were permitted to visit Guangdong in April, the epidemic there was out of control and had traveled to Beijing. More than 8,300 people are infected with SARS worldwide. China accounts for most of these cases, as it does for most of the fatalities. Three hundred thirty-four people in China have died of SARS.

Recently WHO lifted its travel ban on Guangdong. Mr. Simpson says the agency stands by its decision because it has more faith in the numbers of SARS cases being reported from Guangdong than it does from elsewhere in China.

"We had a team there that verified the numbers," said the WHO spokesman. "And also, it looked more realistic to us because the numbers came down very slowly in Guangdong. The reasons why there are questions in other places in China, and particularly in Beijing, is because the numbers came down very rapidly. Again, as I say, it may just be that it is very good news. But we have questions about it."

Although Hong Kong and mainland China have been lifted from WHO's travel ban, the health agency still advises people to postpone non-essential travel to the Chinese regions of Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Tianjin, as well as Taiwan.