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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 May, 2003, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Sars toll still rising
Masked security guards at Beijing railway station
Beijing officials say their anti-Sars measures are working

Five more people have died from the Sars virus in China - but for the first time Hong Kong has reported no new cases of infection.

In a rare gesture of solidarity with its rival and neighbour Taiwan, China offered to send Sars specialists and medical supplies to the island.

Taiwan is struggling with the world's fastest growing Sars outbreak, with another 55 new cases reported on Friday and 10 on Saturday. The authorities say they are speeding up the analysis of possible infections.

And in Canada, two suspected Sars victims died on Friday - part of a group of 20 new suspected cases - just 10 days after the World Health Organization lifted a warning against travel to Toronto.

Travel warning lifted

China's health ministry said that of the five latest deaths, three were in Beijing, one was in Inner Mongolia and the other in Liaoning province.

They take the official national death toll from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome to 308, with 5,309 confirmed cases.

civet cat
Experts say Sars could have come from the civet cat
The news came less than a day after the WHO lifted its travel warning covering Hong Kong and China's southern Guangdong province, saying the Sars virus there was now under control.

For the first time since the disease hit Hong Kong in March, health officials there reported no new infections in their daily survey. But two more people died from Sars, taking the Hong Kong death toll to 262.

Taiwan is the third-worst affected area - and WHO experts visited the island only after Beijing gave its consent in early May.

China has now offered to "do its best to provide the island with any materials that are urgently needed," according to a letter from China's semi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.

There was no immediate response from Taiwan, the Associated Press reported.

The China Daily said that, along with medical experts, the aid would include 100,000 surgical masks, 200,000 protective suits and five specially equipped ambulances.

Help for Taiwan

A senior official in Beijing, Cai Fuchao, said: "We will give our best regards to the Taiwan compatriots and wish them a happy and healthy life."

Child with face mask
The Taiwanese health minister promised better equipment

He said Beijing had seen a "notable downward" trend in Sars cases over the past week, due to the government's disease control measures.

The Taiwanese Health Minister, Chen Chien-jen, said hospital staff treating Sars patients would be given better equipment, and Sars sufferers would be separated from ordinary patients.

He also said hospitals were being told to report cases honestly, following allegations of delays and irregularities.

The WHO has described the size of the outbreak as worrying.

However, the WHO said the situation did "not suggest an explosive escalation in the number of cases".

Feline origins?

The authorities in the Chinese province of Guangdong have stepped up controls against the illegal trade in the civet cat, the latest suspected culprit for the Sars virus.

On Friday, researchers at the University of Hong Kong suggested that the coronavirus which causes Sars might have originated in the cat, a delicacy eaten by some Chinese.

The animal, a nocturnal wild mammal, is from the same family as the mongoose and is hunted in Asia for food and to make perfume.

Guangdong is believed to be where the disease first surfaced, and where such delicacies are served.

"This is an endangered species, the trade in this animal is totally illegal and is happening underground," Feng Shaoming, spokesman for the Guangdong Health Bureau told AFP.

Scientists have identified a similar coronavirus in racoons, which are also a local delicacy.

Sars has killed more than 600 people worldwide and infected more than 7,800 people - mostly in Asia. There is no known cure.

The BBC's Daniel Boettcher
"This is a serious set back"

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