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SARS virus claims more lives in Asia
BEIJING -- As entertainment venues shut their doors yesterday under orders from Beijing officials trying to contain the spread of SARS, the virus claimed more lives in the Chinese capital, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Beijing health officials reported eight deaths related to severe acute respiratory syndrome yesterday and said as many as 2,300 people might be infected. A ninth person died elsewhere in mainland China, bringing the nation's total to 131. Twelve others died in Hong Kong yesterday.
Taiwan, which reported its first SARS death yesterday, imposed a mandatory 10-day quarantine on travelers from areas affected by the virus -- including mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and Canada -- but did not say where those travelers would stay.
Those violating the quarantine, including foreigners, could be jailed for up to two years or fined up to $8,600, Premier Yu Shyi-kun said.
Meanwhile, Singapore said it would close dozens of food markets and bar visits to public hospitals to contain its outbreak.
Worldwide, SARS has killed 318 people in the past several months and has sickened more than 4,800 others.
Beijing has been the hardest-hit locality, and the city's orders for closings covered a range of businesses.
A sign outside a movie theater in eastern Beijing read: "Cultural and entertainment spaces are temporarily closed for business beginning today. Thank you for understanding."
At South Cathedral, a sign in English pasted on the door said Mass was suspended for one month because of city rules requiring that "all congregations greater than 50 be canceled." An accompanying sign in Chinese said only that services were canceled "to ensure the health of parishioners and clergy."
It was unclear how many jobs would be affected by the closures in the city of about 14 million people.
The city also raised the fine for spitting in public -- thought to be a means of SARS transmission -- to 50 yuan, the equivalent of $6, a 1,000 percent jump.
Although Hong Kong reported 12 deaths yesterday, matching its previous one-day high, health officials said the number of new infections dropped to 16, its lowest figure in weeks.
"The figures of infection have shown a slightly downward trend," Health Director Dr. Margaret Chan said. "But we dare not to make any predictions -- this disease has shown big fluctuations."
SARS has sickened 1,543 people and killed 133 in Hong Kong, and local business has been badly hurt by the outbreak.
Elsewhere, India reported its sixth SARS case yesterday, but has had no deaths.
Singapore said a prominent 37-year-old surgeon who died last week was classified a SARS victim yesterday. His death was the 22nd in Singapore out of 199 cases.
The Health Ministry said it would shut food markets starting today and ban visits to public hospitals beginning tomorrow to prevent the virus' spread.
"Anything we can do to keep the situation under control, we will do it," Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang said.
In Washington, a top federal health official said the United States was "just ahead of the curve" and has been able to avoid large numbers of cases.
"There are no new signs that it's spreading in any escalating way" in the United States, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said yesterday.
There have been 41 SARS cases in the United States but no deaths.
The director of the World Health Organization said yesterday that there is still time to stop the global spread of SARS if affected countries take appropriate measures such as airport checks and travel warnings.
"I think we still have a window of opportunity. ... At the moment, we still have a chance to contain it and to have it go down in the places where outbreaks are already happening and avoid it spreading to new countries," Gro Harlem Brundtland told the British Broadcasting Corp. television program Breakfast with Frost.
Thailand said it will hold a meeting tomorrow of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other Asian nations on how to cope with SARS -- but will require attendees to submit health certificates verifying that they are free of the disease.