WHO focuses on rural China to contain SARS virus

THE World Health Organisation took its SARS probe into rural China, where the health system is a shambles, as reports emerged yesterday of more attacks on quarantine sites in the country by people scared of the disease.

A team of four WHO experts investigated hospitals and an epidemic prevention station in a rural area of Hebei province, 75 miles south of Beijing, the Xinhua news agency said.

Although the government focus was shifting to the countryside where most Chinese live, WHO director general nominee Jong-Wook Lee said after meeting Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and health chief Wu Yi that the cities were still the pressing concern.

Beijing, the worst hit city in the world, reported an additional 48 cases and two deaths yesterday, its lowest daily increase since before April 20 when the number of cases shot to 339 from 37 and the mayor and health minister were sacked for covering up the outbreak.

In all of mainland China, there were 118 new cases and six deaths on Friday. There was also better news from hard-hit Hong Kong, which announced only six new infections yesterday, the lowest one-day rise since the outbreak began and the sixth straight day of single digit numbers.

But Taiwan reported 18 new cases yesterday its biggest single-day rise in the past two weeks and quarantined almost 500 people in a Taipei public housing project.

WHO experts say China is key to containing the global spread of the flu-like virus, which has now killed 514 people and infected 7,362. SARS panic has spawned sporadic protests and riots in a country where the Communist Party exerts firm control.

About 60 people protested in Beijing yesterday against plans to set up a fever station at a hospital in their neighbourhood, the first known SARS demonstration in the capital.

"We are worried that SARS could spread here because our residence is right next door to this hospital. We can't open our windows for fear we will get infected," said an elderly woman.

Officials said no SARS patients would be treated there, but the city was also still in the dark as to where many of its cases were originating.

The Chinese government has declared all-out war on SARS and is striving to keep it from spreading into the countryside where 70% of its 1.3 billion people live.

Some 800 miles to the southeast, in rural areas of the massive municipality of Chongqing, police detained people after villagers, fearful of getting SARS, repeatedly ransacked quarantine sites, officials said.

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