BEIJING: The global death toll from SARS passed 500 yesterday after China reported five more deaths from an illness the government is trying desperately to stop spreading out of control in the countryside.
The health ministry said 146 more people had been infected, taking the number of cases to 4,698, the bulk of the world's total, while deaths totalled 224.
Shanghai, China's commercial capital, reported its first death due to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome yesterday.
With no sign that SARS is being controlled in the world's most populous nation, the government and the World Health Organisation fear the epidemic could spread rapidly through the vast hinterland, where health services are often poor.
The WHO extended its SARS-related travel warning yesterday to Tianjin and the province of Inner Mongolia as well as Taipei, capital of Taiwan. Taipei officials said that SARS had probably spread into the community and the next five days would be crucial.
The UN health agency had already advised against travel to Beijing, the provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi, and Hong Kong.
In Russia, Interfax news agency issued and then withdrew a report saying that a man living on the border with China had become Russia's first SARS case.
A Health Ministry spokesman said the man had all the symptoms of the infection but the virus had not been isolated.
Russia, with a 3,600km frontier with China, has closed Far East border crossings to try to prevent the epidemic's spread and has said it might order a halt to “all air travel to airports in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan”.
Highlighting fears that SARS could run rampant in the Chinese countryside, Premier Wen Jiabao has urged that preventive measures be taken in areas where “basic rural medical facilities are weak”.
Reflecting those concerns, four WHO health experts headed to Hebei province yesterday to assess whether healthcare systems there could cope with a SARS outbreak. The WHO said the number of probable cases has risen sharply.
The province almost surrounds Beijing, which has the world's highest number of SARS cases and is home to a floating population of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, many from Hebei.
Reinforcing global concern, an international team of scientists said the SARS death rate was higher than previously thought and could be as high as 55% for people over 60.
They said the rate was about 13% in those under that age. There was no evidence the virus had mutated into a deadlier form, despite earlier mortality estimates of 6% to 10%.
Researchers and health officials in Hong Kong and Britain, who examined data from the first nine weeks of the outbreak of the virus in Hong Kong, also found the incubation period – the time from infection to displaying symptoms – averaged six days.
Hong Kong, the worst SARS-hit area outside of China proper, reported four more deaths and seven new cases yesterday.
While SARS appeared to be under control in most places outside China, it has wreaked havoc on economies in the region.
Taiwan's health department reported another 22 probable and suspected cases, taking the island's infections to 360, third highest after China and Hong Kong. The death toll remains at 13. – Reuters