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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 April, 2003, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
China faces up to virus threat
People wearing protective masks, Shanghai, China
China has been accused of concealing the true number of cases
China has taken action against its health minister and cancelled a popular holiday, as the government owned up to hundreds of new cases of the deadly Sars virus.

The minister, Zhang Wenkang, and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong were removed from their top Communist Party posts amid accusations that officials had covered up the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Both are expected to lose their state posts shortly.

The government has cancelled the week-long May Day holiday, fearing the movement of tens of millions of people could further spread the virus.

Known death toll
Hong Kong: 88
China: 79
Canada: 14
Singapore: 14
Vietnam: 5
Thailand: 2
Malaysia: 1

China's official death toll is now 79, with 1,807 confirmed cases of the illness, the health ministry has announced.

In Beijing, there is a near ten-fold increase in official cases, with 346 confirmed infections and an additional 402 "suspected".

The health ministry said 18 people had died from the virus in Beijing.

Until Sunday, the authorities had admitted to just 44 cases in Beijing with four deaths.

Correspondents say it is an embarrassing admission for the authorities, prompted by doctors accusing the government of lying and a demand from the World Health Organization that China come clean.

Sars is known to have killed more than 200 people worldwide.

Global update:

  • Singapore quarantines 2,400 workers and closes its largest wholesale vegetable market for 10 days after an employee is diagnosed with Sars

  • Canada closes its largest trauma unit for at least 10 days after four new cases of suspected Sars are discovered among health staff. Fourteen Canadians have died from the virus

  • Seven more people have died in Hong Kong, the territory announces, taking the death toll there to 88. There are also 22 new cases, the government says

The BBC's Holly Williams in Beijing says the sacking of the two Chinese officials is a shock in this authoritarian state, where the Communist Party usually protects its own.

The political blood-letting is intended to show the international community the authorities are doing something about the flu-like Sars virus, she says.

Hong Kong family wearing protective face masks
Densely-populated Hong Kong has been hit hard
Mr Zhang was removed as chief of the Communist Party branch for the ministry of health, while Mr Meng was sacked as deputy secretary of the Communist Party's Beijing Municipal Committee.

The cancellation of China's national "golden week", which was due to start on 1 May, means forfeiting a huge boost in consumer spending.

During the holiday, students usually return home, migrant workers go back to their villages and the new middle classes go on tourist trips.

"This year, we will not have the week-long holiday," vice health minister Gao Qiang told reporters, calling the move a "highly rigorous measure".

"This doesn't mean there will be no travelling and tourism going on," he said. "We are just against the massive movement of people."

The education ministry has printed prominent warnings in state media urging students to remain on campus.

Rural heath fears

Before Sunday's announcement, China's official death toll was 67, with about 1,500 infections - nearly half of the world's total cases.

In recent days, Communist leaders have started warning local officials not to try to hide Sars cases. But correspondents say the number of infections in China may never be known.

People in China's poor provinces tend not to visit the doctor because it is too expensive or because there is no doctor. Health experts say the virus may therefore never be fully eradicated.

It is believed to have originated in China's southern Guangdong province in November, and has now spread to at least 13 provinces.

The northern province of Shanxi has 108 cases, while the northern region of Inner Mongolia has 25 cases, according to health ministry figures.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Adam Brookes
"International pressure is forcing China to break down a wall of silence on the epidemic"



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