Markets to close for mass cleaning

SINGAPORE: Singapore will close dozens of food markets today for a mass cleaning to curb the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), as three new cases and a 19th death showed the virus spreading despite aggressive counter-measures. 

A married couple, both 41, caught SARS from the husband's 60-year-old mother, bringing Singapore's confirmed cases to 198, the world's fourth highest, a Health Ministry official said. 

More than 100 people are under isolation in hospital after showing SARS-like symptoms and 19 have died in a month. The latest fatality was a 54-year-old female healthcare worker in the urology department at the nation's largest hospital who died on Saturday. 

As the death toll mounts, authorities plan a “spring cleaning” of dozens of small, family-run foodstalls in densely packed neighbourhood markets from today, an aggressive bid to prevent the virus from leaking into the general community. 

Environment Minister Lim Swee Say said 134 foodstalls would be cleaned and disinfected by May 5, and 80 markets would be scrubbed down today. Sewers and drains are to be flushed out. 

“Even though there is no evidence SARS is transmitted by environmental factors, I want to emphasise that we will not take any chances,” Lim said. 

Singapore's death rate of 9.5% of SARS sufferers is above the world average of about 6% and the government says SARS could be “catastrophic” for its society, economy and health system if not brought under control. 

Although the World Health Organisation praised the government's swift response to SARS, daily reports of new infections underscore the difficulty even tightly controlled nations such as Singapore have in containing the virus. 

Public health officials reported Singapore's youngest victim of the sickness yet, an 18-month-old girl who caught SARS from her 72-year-old grandfather. He worked in a vegetable stall at the nation's largest wholesale market, where several workers have contracted SARS. 

The Pasir Panjang market supplies Singapore with 70% of its vegetables and was shut for 10 days starting April 19 because of the virus. 

Eleven people linked to stalls at the market are now isolated in hospital with SARS-like symptoms, posing a test to authorities who have largely managed to confine the illness to hospitals, where nine out of 10 SARS victims caught the virus. – Reuters  

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