SARS strikes Malaysia as US prepares to contain disease

Malaysia today became the latest country to announce a death from a mystery disease that has killed at least 86 people worldwide, while neighbouring Singapore tried to convince a wary public that its own outbreak was under control.

Malaysia today became the latest country to announce a death from a mystery disease that has killed at least 86 people worldwide, while neighbouring Singapore tried to convince a wary public that its own outbreak was under control.

US President George W Bush followed the lead of governments in Asia and Canada by giving American health authorities the power to quarantine anyone infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

The US Pacific Command ordered all military personnel not to travel to China and Hong Kong – including Navy ships that regularly dock in Hong Kong – unless it was essential to their missions.

US health authorities are investigating some 100 suspected cases of the disease at home. More than 2,300 people worldwide have been infected.

Three more people have died in Hong Kong from the mysterious flu-like disease, raising the death toll in the territory to 20, the government reported today.

Another 39 patients were stricken with SARS, bringing to 800 the number of people hospitalised in Hong Kong with the disease, according to a government news release.

In China, where the government has been criticised for failing to notify the international community when SARS first hit in November, Vice Premier Wu Yi promised to start releasing more information to the public, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

Malaysia became the 20th place to join the list of Sars-affected areas after confirming that the illness killed a 64-year-old man who died on March 30 in Kuala Lumpur. The man developed Sars symptoms during a recent visit to China, said Malaysia’s Health Ministry Director-General Mohamad Taha Arif.

Thailand’s Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan said he was considering calling military medics to help screen incoming passengers for the disease. The World Health Organization, or WHO, has reported seven Sars cases and two deaths in Thailand.

Singapore said the number of new infections in the city-state was dropping and people should resume their normal routines. The government said it would begin reopening the country’s schools in the coming week after shutting them last month due to the disease, which has killed six people and infected 101.

However, parents will have to sign declarations saying their children are healthy, and students who have travelled outside Singapore will have their temperatures taken by school staff for 10 days after their return.

Singapore’s economic losses for the first month of the outbreak could total an estimated 509 million Singapore dollars ($286m) and could hit S 4.1bn ($2.3bn) if the outbreak continues for three months, Standard Chartered Bank economist Joseph Tan was quoted as telling the Straits Times newspaper.

In China’s southern Guangdong province, a WHO team met at Zhongshan University where experts have collected hundreds of specimens of blood, lung fluid and other materials from people who died of Sars and those who recovered, team leader Dr Robert Breiman said.

WHO wants to compare the samples to determine whether those who died were killed by a combination of viruses or bacteria or just one strain, he said.

The meeting came after the head of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, Li Liming, offered the world an extraordinary apology for failing to release information sooner about the disease – first detected in China in November.

In Hong Kong, hygiene workers in protective suits collected rats and roaches for testing at the Amoy Gardens apartment complex, where at least 250 residents were infected. They hope the pests may hold a clue to how the disease was transmitted.

Agricultural officials also rounded up pets, from dogs to turtles, from the building after a cat was found to carry a type of animal virus called a coronavirus. Experts believe Sars might be a new form of the virus, the South China Morning Post reported.

Fear of infection kept many Hong Kong residents from crossing over to mainland China to sweep their ancestors’ graves for the ancient Ching Ming festival.

In Australia, staff of the national airline Qantas were trying to contact 310 passengers who were on flight QF094 from Los Angeles to Melbourne with three children suspected of carrying the disease.

The children and their parents flew from their home in Toronto, Canada, for a holiday in Melbourne.

Cleaners, maintenance staff, pilots and flight attendants who had contact with the aircraft are also being alerted to watch out for symptoms which include high fever, aches, a dry cough and shortness of breath.

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