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Last Updated:  Sunday, 6 April, 2003, 18:50 GMT 19:50 UK
China under fire for virus spread
Residents of Causeway Bay district, Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of the worst affected areas
The head of the World Health Organization has publicly criticised China for its failure to report quickly the first cases of the pneumonia-like illness known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or Sars.

Gro Harlem Brundtland also highlighted China's lack of co-operation with the international community in the early stages of the outbreak which has now killed more than 90 people - most of them in China or Hong Kong.

She said that in her five years as head of the WHO this was the first time a disease had spread internationally in this way.

Gro Harlem Brundtland
Next time something strange and new comes... let us come in as quickly as possible
Gro Harlem Brundtland
Although Sars began in southern China last November, it is only recently that China has allowed the WHO access to the area.

The criticism came as China announced several more deaths from the virus, taking the total above 50 people dead there.

They include China's first foreign victim - a Finnish man who died in a Beijing hospital.

In other developments:

  • Reports from Bhutan say the trade and industry minister has been among the first people to be quarantined under a new law imposed on returning nationals who may have been exposed to Sars.

    How Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has spread around the world

  • The Malaysian Government says it is not going to allow its nationals to return home from abroad if they show symptoms of Sars.

  • In Australia, the authorities are to be given the power to quarantine anyone suspected of suffering from the potentially deadly virus

  • The biggest hospital in Singapore starts screening visitors after 20 of its nurses and a doctor were suspected of contracting the Sars virus.

  • In the US, President George W Bush issues an executive order allowing the forced quarantine of patients with Sars if deemed necessary by the health secretary.

  • Pakistan says it will quarantine anyone from affected countries suspected of being infected with Sars.

Limiting damage

Ms Brundtland said the WHO should have been brought in at an earlier stage to deal with the crisis.

China 1247 cases (51 deaths)
Hong Kong 842 (22)
Singapore 103 (6)
Vietnam 60 (4)
Canada 74 (8)
Thailand 7 (2)
Malaysia (suspected) 70 (1)
Source: National health authorities

"It would have been definitely helpful if the international expertise and WHO had been able to help at an earlier stage," she said.

"When I say that it would have been better, it means that I'm saying as the director general of the World Health Organisation: next time something strange and new comes anywhere in the world let us come in as quickly as possible."

Chinese officials, striving hard to address criticism over their secretive handling of the pneumonia-like virus, hastily convened a news conference on Sunday to announce the death of Pekka Aro.

The 53 year-old Finn, who was working for the International Labour Organisation, was thought to have travelled to Beijing from Thailand.

Chinese officials have been trying to limit the damage done by Beijing's secretive handling of the issue.

The BBC's Francis Markus in Shanghai says China is extremely concerned that Sars could hurt its image and the flow of foreign investment.

The BBC's Daniel Boettcher
"The new cases are adding to the concerns of travellers"

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