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China: SARS Coming Under Control

China's top official for fighting SARS said the nation's outbreak has stabilized, but new cases might still appear due to the vast population and people's movements around the country, state television reported Monday.

The Health Ministry announced 12 new infections Monday — the lowest daily increase yet on the mainland — amid steadily declining reports of new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The ministry reported five new fatalities — three of them in Beijing — raising China's death toll to 289.

Vice Premier Wu Yi, who also is health minister, noted the declining numbers but said the country of 1.3 billion people couldn't let down its guard.

"We still feel the situation is very severe ... and one of the reasons is China's very large number of people and the flow of the population," Wu told reporters in Geneva, where she is attending the World Health Organization's annual assembly.

"Under the circumstances, there is still a possibility of new cases, so not only can we not relax, but we must redouble our efforts," Wu said in the report, aired on China Central Television.

Also Monday, the official Xinhua News Agency quoted Wu telling WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland, "We cannot lower our guards, as the epidemic might relapse with even minor oversight."

SARS has infected more than 5,200 on China's mainland.

China, which has seen the highest proportion of the more than 7,700 people infected worldwide, has been criticized for its slow response to the disease and alleged reluctance to reveal the true number of cases.

The global death toll has climbed to 634, with most of the victims in China and Hong Kong.

Governments worldwide must do more to work together in the fight against the SARS virus, Brundtland said Monday.

"It has never been clearer than today that a secure, healthy future for us all depends on cooperation across borders and between institutions," Brundtland told health officials and medical specialists.

"We can no longer rely on national efforts alone to implement the scaled up system of global alert and response that the world now needs," she said in remarks prepared for delivery at the opening session of the annual World Health Assembly.

The meeting of the 191-nation WHO's decision-making body is likely to dominated by the issue of SARS.

Delegates — even ranking officials — will be barred from the 10-day meeting if they refuse to complete a questionnaire that asks whether they have been in contact with SARS sufferers or have symptoms of the diseases. Delegates who are cleared receive a badge allowing them to attend.

In Beijing, the world's hardest-hit area with 150 deaths and more than 2,300 cases, the city government said Monday more than 27,000 people are in quarantine, mostly in hospitals and construction sites.

Wu's remarks echoed those of President Hu Jintao, who was quoted by Russia's Interfax News Agency saying that he was sure China can defeat SARS.

"Atypical pneumonia is a disease which may be prevented, which may be controlled, which may be cured," Interfax on Sunday quoted Hu as saying in Beijing.

The government's latest challenge is preventing the flu-like illness from spreading to the vast, poor countryside — home to most of country's 1.3 billion people — where few hospitals and doctors could mean a major disaster.

China has been criticized for its slow response to the disease and reluctance to reveal the true number of cases. The government has promised more openness and told officials and the public to comply with disease-control restrictions.

Last week, China's Supreme Court said people who cause death or serious injury by knowingly spreading the virus could face the death penalty. The court said quarantine violators could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison.

The government is threatening to fire civil servants who abandon their duties out of fear of SARS and to revoke the work credentials of professionals who do so.

In the northern province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, three doctors who refused to work in hospital quarantine departments have been fired and barred for life from practicing medicine, said an official of the Anti-SARS Leading Group of Gaoyang County.

"During the time when the broad masses of people are now fighting the SARS, they refused to carry out their responsibilities as doctors," said the official, who would give only his family name, Sun.

The Philippines asked WHO on Monday to be removed from the list of affected countries, citing a dearth of recent local infections.

Philippine officials have confirmed 12 cases of SARS, including two deaths, but most were infected in other countries and the only locally transmitted infection occurred 20 days ago.

Singapore's hopes of having its outbreak declared under control on Sunday were dashed when the city-state reported an 11th-hour new case — its first in 20 days. The new case was a Malaysian man living in Singapore who began to run a fever on May 5.

Defense Minister Tony Tan described SARS, which has killed 28 people in the city-state, as "Singapore's Sept. 11," referring to the attacks on the United States in 2001, the Straits Times said.