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SARS Lockdown In Beijing

Beijing's government closed the city's theaters, cinemas, Internet cafes and other public entertainment venues Sunday in an attempt to stop the spread of SARS, as Hong Kong reported another drop in the number of infections for the second day in a row.

Twelve more SARS patients have died in Hong Kong, matching the territory's previous one-day record, but health officials on Sunday reported just 16 new infections, the lowest total yet since the government began releasing daily statistics last month.

Taiwan announced its first death from the virus and imposed a 10-day mandatory quarantine on all travelers from areas hit hard by the flu-like disease.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome has killed 318 people worldwide and sickened more than 4,800.

But the head of World Health Organization said Sunday there is still time to arrest the global spread of SARS if affected countries take the appropriate measures such as airport checks and travel warnings.

"I think we still have a window of opportunity. ... At the moment, we still have a chance to contain it and to have it go down in the places where outbreaks are already happening and avoid it spreading to new countries," Gro Harlem Brundtland said in an interview on the British Broadcasting Corp. television program "Breakfast with Frost."

Speaking on CBS' Face the Nation Sunday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control Dr. Julie Gerberding said there is no current 'hazard' in the United States.

She says SARS has infected 'very specific groups' and U.S. containment measures have so far been successful.

Gerberding said the CDC is at least a year away from finding a vaccine for SARS, but she remains optimistic that a vaccine will be found.

Beijing's closures were ordered to "stop possible spread of the SARS virus and ensure public health," the official Xinhua New Agency reported. The measure was announced just days after the city shut down schools, sending home 1.7 million students.

Eight of China's nine new SARS deaths announced Sunday were in Beijing, said Health Ministry spokesman Deng Haihua. The new deaths lifted the Chinese mainland's death toll to 131 with almost 3,000 people sickened across the country, Deng said.

Hundreds of construction workers were working around-the-clock on a new 1,000-bed isolation camp for SARS victims on Beijing's northern outskirts.

The length of the closures of entertainment venues will depend on progress made in combatting SARS, which has killed at least 42 people and sickened 988 in Beijing, Xinhua said. Discos and karaoke parlors were also among places ordered darkened.

Restaurants and shopping centers remained open Sunday, although customers were few. Public parks, Tiananmen Square, and historical sites such as the Forbidden City — the sprawling former home of China's emperors — were mostly empty.

The communist government has been widely criticized for failing to respond earlier to pleas for action and officials have replaced both Beijing's mayor and the health minister amid the outrage.

In Hong Kong, where SARS has killed 121 and sickened 1,527, Health Director Dr. Margaret Chan said despite the lower numbers of new cases, it was too soon to say whether the territory is winning its fight against the disease.

"The figures of infection have shown a slightly downward trend," Chan said. "But we dare not to make any predictions — this disease has shown big fluctuations."

Singapore announced one more SARS death — a 37-year-old surgeon who died April 22 but was not classified as a SARS death until Sunday. His death is the 22nd in Singapore out of 199 cases.

Taiwan's first victim was a 56-year-old man who died Saturday night. He contracted the illness after his brother visited him. The brother was diagnosed with SARS after returning to Hong Kong weeks ago, officials said.

Starting immediately, foreigners arriving in Taiwan from countries hit hard by SARS will be quarantined for 10 days at government-designated quarters yet to be announced, while Taiwan residents returning from those countries will have to stay at home, Premier Yu Shyi-kun said.

Taiwanese who break the quarantine will be held at the government-designated quarters. All violators, foreigners or Taiwanese, can be jailed for up to two years or fined a maximum of $8,600, Yu said.

In the Philippines, Catholics accepted communion wafers by hand instead of a priest placing them directly in the mouth after urging by Manila's Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin. Sin has also asked people in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation to refrain from the common practice of kissing public religious statues.

At an old Manila church, cardboard signs announced the choices on wafers, with many heeding Sin's appeal and lining up for "Communion by hand." A few were defiant, saying God would protect them.

The Malaysian government on Sunday ordered more than 280 workers and patients at a psychiatric hospital in the city of Kuching to be quarantined, after three patients showed suspected SARS symptoms, an official said. None has been classified as a probable SARS case.

India reported its sixth case of SARS, in the crowded eastern city of Calcutta, but also said four SARS patients in the western city of Pune were responding well to treatment.

The WHO has confirmed it is reconsidering the travel warning it issued last week for Toronto, where SARS claimed a 20th victim in Canada Saturday. Toronto, Canada's largest city, is the center of the biggest outbreak of SARS outside of Asia.

In Europe, Italian Health Minister Girolamo Sirchia has asked for an urgent meeting of his colleagues from the other 14 European Union member nations so uniform measures can be adopted to fight SARS, the Italian news agency ANSA reported Sunday.

Italy, which has reported four probaby cases of SARS, also is putting pressure on China to do more. If China doesn't adopt all the necessary controls on passengers headed to Italy, "we will be forced to take drastic measures, such as reducing the number of flights," ANSA quoted Sirchia as saying.

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