China announced one death and five other suspected or confirmed cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) Friday, RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese services report.
Health officials across the country stepped up their alert level as the health ministry rushed to identify the source of the unexpected reemergence of the disease, which killed almost 800 people around the world last year.
"Experts have reached the tentative conclusion that this outbreak can be traced back to infection by laboratory workers," China's health ministry said in a statement. It said a laboratory inside the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Beijing may have been a link in the chain of infection.
"The fact that these infections can be traced to a laboratory, while disturbing, is also to some degree reassuring," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement. "The initial source of the SARS virus does not appear to be animal or community-related."
Chinese officials moved quickly to reassure the international community that there would be no repeat of the cover-up which marked the beginning of the first SARS outbreak in 2003.
Vice Minister of Health Zhu Qinsheng warned there could be more bad news to come. "There may be a possibility of more cases," he told reporters after briefing his colleagues from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Malaysia. "We will cooperate with Asian countries. We will be transparent in all our cases. We will be honest," he said.
The first SARS-related death was a 53-year-old woman surnamed Wei, who appeared to have contracted the disease after nursing her 26-year-old medical student daughter, who had conducted research over a two-week period at the CDC laboratory in Beijing. The daughter, surnamed Song, was later confirmed as suffering from SARS. Wei, whose body was cremated Friday, also had an existing heart condition, and post-mortems were inconclusive as to the part the SARS virus played in her death.
A man who worked with Song at the CDC laboratory, a 31-year-old researcher surnamed Yang, has also been confirmed by the Ditan Hospital in Beijing as another SARS case. However, the government maintains his is only a suspected case. Ditan Hospital doctor Guo Li Ming told reporters Yang's condition is serious. The government has also put Song�s father and her hospital roommate on the list of those suspected of having SARS.
Another confirmed case, 20-year-old Beijing nurse Li Na, worked in the respiratory department of Jiangong hospital, where Song had been briefly hospitalized before going home to Anhui.
Authorities have placed under observation 117 people who had been in contact with the Anhui-related cases. In Beijing, 188 people were considered to have been in close contact with the 20-year-old nurse and five of them had developed fever with SARS-like symptoms, health officials said.
Meanwhile, all Hong Kong hospitals were placed on alert, and health workers were deployed Friday at the territory's airport and main railway station to check on passengers arriving from the Chinese mainland, the government said in a statement. They began stepping up regular temperature checks and would also distribute health alert cards to passengers arriving from Beijing and Anhui by air and rail.
Last year, SARS killed 299 people and sickened 1,755 others in Hong Kong after the virus was brought in from the Chinese mainland. It killed 774 worldwide, of which 349 deaths were reported in China, making it the country most affected by the virus. #####