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BEIJING - Beijing reported its lowest increase in SARS cases in two weeks Sunday but ordered schools to remain closed for an additional 14 days as part of its continued drastic efforts to slow the spread of the disease.

The poorer provinces, meanwhile, accounted for a large chunk of China's 163 new cases Sunday, underlying concerns that the disease is spreading in the vast interior of this country, where the medical system is in shambles after years of neglect and budget cuts.

Inner Mongolia reported 35 more cases. Beijing reported 69.

Altogether, China has reported 4,125 cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and 197 deaths, making it the worst-hit country in the world. On Saturday, the government tripled funds set aside to fight SARS, to $725 million. China acknowledged a massive cover-up of the extent of the SARS epidemic on April 20, but since then has appeared to be taking bold measures to deal with the disease. Authorities say that 15,873 people in Beijing, who have had contact with the 1,803 SARS patients there, have been quarantined.

In Hong Kong, health authorities boarded a Malaysian-registered tanker and sent 10 members of the crew to a hospital Sunday because they were showing symptoms of SARS in what could be the first large outbreak of the disease in a vessel at sea.

Medical staff in protective jumpsuits boarded the tanker and examined all 24 crew members after the vessel made an emergency stop offshore. Three doctors who examined the crew did not detect any fevers, although the men had complained of fever, coughs and body aches after they left Thailand on April 28, the assistant director of health, Cindy Lai, told reporters. The symptoms are associated with SARS, which has killed nearly 450 people and infected 6,700 worldwide.

In Hong Kong, one of the worst affected cities, the number of new infections has fallen recently. The government reported five more deaths and eight new infections Sunday, the lowest daily number of new cases since the outbreak began early in March.

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