Beijing --- In an effort to halt the spread of the deadly SARS virus, Chinese health officials quarantined nearly 500 people ahead of one of the country's busiest travel holidays as the World Health Organization dispatched a team Monday to help investigate the source of the outbreak.
Since last Thursday, China has announced two confirmed cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and six suspected cases --- one of which led to the first death in China since a major SARS outbreak last year. All of the patients are linked to a single person who worked at a virology laboratory in Beijing.
May 1, May Day, marks the start of one of China's busiest travel weeks. Tens of millions of people take trains, buses and airplanes during the weeklong holiday, providing a crucial stimulus to the economy. Last year's SARS panic peaked around May Day, causing travel to grind to a halt and the shutdown of most restaurants and entertainment venues.
The disease killed 774 people worldwide last year, infected more than 8,000 and severely affected global travel. So far this year, SARS has been reported in two lab-related cases in Taiwan and Singapore and in four cases in southern China --- but the sporadic outbreak has not come close to inducing last year's mass panic.
After a Beijing nurse and the lab worker, a female graduate student from Anhui province, were found to have SARS, authorities quarantined 337 people in Beijing and 133 in Anhui. The lab worker was cared for by her mother, who died on April 19 after she, too, showed symptoms of SARS. Officials have also called for stricter health surveillance at airports and train stations. The National Institute of Virology in Beijing was sealed off and experts traveled to provincial labs to conduct checks.
WHO officials have said that violations of lab guidelines probably caused the new infections. The nurse's mother, father, aunt and roommate were reported as suspected cases Sunday.
Experts are perplexed about why it took nearly a month to suspect SARS in the lab worker, who first complained of a fever on March 25. She took the train back and forth between Beijing and Anhui several times to see doctors and was diagnosed with viral pneumonia on April 4, according to the China Daily.
Unlike last year, when the government tried to cover up SARS for months after it emerged, the Chinese media have carried detailed reports of the new SARS outbreak. However, the reports usually emphasize how much China is cooperating with WHO and neglect to mention any remotely critical comments from WHO officials.
Furthermore, Chinese authorities have not looked kindly on any bold reporting of SARS.
The Southern Metropolitan Daily, a Chinese newspaper that broke the news of China's first SARS case this season --- before China reported it to WHO --- has been punished. Its top manager and editor were sentenced last month to 11 and 12 years in prison on corruption charges and another editor was arrested. The actions have been widely seen as government retaliation for the paper's aggressive reporting, which has made it one of the most profitable papers in China.
Meanwhile, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that China will begin the first phase of clinical testing of a SARS vaccine on human subjects "in the near future" on 40 volunteers at a Beijing hospital. China is the first country to approve clinical tests of a SARS vaccine on humans, Xinhua said.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution